2016-12-02 / Schools

The most important lessons of their lives

Apollo High’s program keeps teen parents on track
By Michael Aushenker


ROCK THE BOAT—Above, senior Jessica Portugal plays with her 2-year-old daughter, Emma, during a Minor Parent class at Apollo High School on Nov. 29. At right, senior Angie Martinez receives a hug from her 14-month- old son, Flex Gonzalez, as Minor Parent infant care aide Kathy Birdt gives an encouraging smile. 
Photos by RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers ROCK THE BOAT—Above, senior Jessica Portugal plays with her 2-year-old daughter, Emma, during a Minor Parent class at Apollo High School on Nov. 29. At right, senior Angie Martinez receives a hug from her 14-month- old son, Flex Gonzalez, as Minor Parent infant care aide Kathy Birdt gives an encouraging smile. Photos by RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers Brenda Rivas got pregnant in the middle of her junior year at Simi Valley High School.

“I was really big so I had to do some home schooling,” she said, recalling the challenging time in her life seven years ago.

When her daughter, Angelina, arrived in 2010, Rivas was 17. Deciding to return to her studies in time for her senior year, she enrolled at Apollo High School to take advantage of its Minor Parent program.

Although she was reluctant at first to attend Apollo, which primarily serves as a continuation high school, a tour of the program run by teacher Cristina Sullivan put her at ease.

“The first day I met Cris and the Minor Parent moms, they took me in,” said Rivas, now 24. “They treated me like family.”

The Minor Parent program aims to keep pregnant and parenting teens in school and help them get their diploma, all the while providing childcare.

Backed by a nursery staff, Sullivan teaches parenting and child development skills while ensuring the young parents receive needed support and services.

According to Sullivan, the State of California started the Minor Parent program in 1970. Simi Valley Unified School District was one of the first districts to enact it.

Locally, Minor Parent began under the leadership of Wilfred Hopp, SVUSD’s director of adult education at the time. Originally located at Simi Valley Adult School, Simi’s program hopped across the street to Apollo in 1996.

“It was a great move for the students to be in a high school environment versus an adult environment,” said Sullivan, who has been part of the program since 1990. “Proms, yearbooks, grad night — it was important for them to have those experiences.”

Nine pupils from 16 to 19 years old are currently enrolled in Apollo’s program. Eight have babies and one girl is pregnant.

Up until a decade ago, Sullivan said her program sometimes had as many as three times that amount of students.

“There’s been a decrease in teen pregnancy nationwide,” Sullivan said.

Besides giving the teens confidence as parents, the classes teach them about baby nutrition and safety, treating a sick baby and language development. During the pregnancy phase, the students learn about prenatal care and delivery.

“They’ve chosen to parent,” Sullivan said of the teens. “Let’s give them as much (hands-on experience) as possible.”

The program is not just for females. Young fathers also enroll.

“I encourage the dads. Even if there is not a commitment with the couple, there is a commitment with the child,” Sullivan said.

‘Not an easy path’

Operating out of its own building at Apollo, Minor Parent revolves around regular school days.

“It’s not an easy path that (the students are) on,” said Sullivan, who teaches bilingually. “We do a lot of nurturing — not just the babies but the teens as well. Sometimes it’s just listening. Sometimes it’s providing a counselor or school nurse.”

Sullivan teaches teens there’s no shame in requiring assistance with childrearing.

“We all need help,” she said. “Every parent needs encouragement.”

For Tiffany Morrison, 21, Minor Parent was invaluable.

“There’s no way I could have gone to high school and watched my son,” she said. “I probably wouldn’t have graduated from high school.”

Morrison was already bound for Apollo in 2010 when she learned of her pregnancy.

“I knew that I was going to keep my son,” she said. “As a young new mom, it’s not easy to leave your child with just anyone.”

She said she knew about the program because her mother had gone through it while pregnant with her. Sullivan had taught her mother as well.

Ultimately, Morrison graduated only one semester late.

An enduring bond

Even after students leave Apollo, the bond between Sullivan and her pupils can extend for years.

With her high school diploma in hand and 3-year-old Noah at home, Morrison attends Moorpark College full time. She is majoring in bioengineering and hoping to transfer to UCLA soon. She said she still feels indebted to Sullivan.

“I knew nothing about parenting,” Morrison said. “There’s so many different tricks that she knows. I still talk to her every time something comes up. She’s one of the first people I call.”

Rivas, too, said she and Sullivan stay in touch.

“Up until this day,” Rivas said, “she still calls me, saying, ‘I have a scholarship you want to apply for.’ They’re still watching out for me like family. This is my second family. It still is, five years later.”

Today, Rivas is enrolled in a credential program at Cal State Channel Islands while also raising Angelina and working as a second-grade student teacher at Mesa Union School in Somis.

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