On an early September morning, the staff of Al Kennedy High School gathered in a room at the South Lane School District offices. The Sentinel had approached the district in the prior weeks about chronicling the teachers and students at Kennedy to tell the story of alternative education through the lens of those on the ground. District administrators thought it was a great idea. Kennedy staff had questions. Eight educators sat in a room with a newspaper editor and had a conversation. At the end, they’d come to an understanding: The truth is the truth and the kids come first. Over the course of the 2017-2018 school year, the Sentinel will tell the story of these educators and their students as they navigate a location change, funding gaps and the unfortunately true narrative that sometimes working hard isn’t enough and an education doesn’t fix everything. We’ll tell stories of triumph, tragedy and truth as the tribe at Kennedy makes the most with what it has in its continued effort to slingshot students up and over the barriers to progress through understanding, commitment and engagement while acknowledging the reality that some kids won’t make it.
Speaking in front of the South Lane School Board is part of the prize for earning student of the month at one of the community’s two high schools. It’s meant to be an honor but for most, it’s nerve-wracking. Students approach the dais and sit before the board to give updates on their schools and tell the seven board members and superintendent how they’ve grown, what they’ve learned and how they got there.
On Nov. 6, Kalie Heiser detailed her long road. She told the board she had struggled with and beat addiction. She’d faced homelessness and family tensions. The Kennedy senior shared her hopes of becoming a beautician and, with her belly rounded under the table, that she was scheduled to take her GED exam the next day and give birth shortly after. She graduated from Kennedy on Nov. 7th.
Delight Valley is difficult to explain to those who have never been there.
When Kennedy High School made the move to the location in the summer of 2017, it was with the understanding that it would be sharing the space with a few dozen preschoolers who utilized some of the buildings as part of the Head Start program. Six months in, it’s easy to see the compromises that allow 94 high school students to co-exist with toddlers.
Entry gates have bungee cords for added security and signs asking that visitors ensure the gates are latched to keep little ones inside. The outdoor hallways that lead to crisscrossing paths dotted with one-story, single classroom buildings are adorned with decorations crafted by tiny hands. And just beyond the principal’s office, there’s a playground. A chain-link fence surrounds the seesaw and slide and on nice days, three-year-olds take turns on the swings and engage in the politics of sharing in the sandbox.
Weston Mullen isn’t in the sandbox though. He’s not waiting his turn for the swings or standing in line for the slide. The toddler is at a different daycare at Cottage Grove High School where his mother, Amanda, will pick him up after completing her day at Kennedy.
She’ll walk into the same school she started her senior year, where she had Braxton Hicks contractions during class that sent her home and where she fell behind in her school work. Cottage Grove High School is one of five high schools Mullen attended between Eugene, Creswell and Cottage Grove before she landed in Delight Valley. Like most of her fellow Kennedy students, she found what she needed there.
“They’ll be days where I’m dragging my feet and I just don’t feel like a super parent,” she said. “One of the teachers will be like, ‘Hey you’re doing awesome, you’re kicking butt. You’re going to school and you’re a parent.’”
When Mullen became a parent, she was a cheerleader, a good student in Creswell and 16-years-old.
“When I got pregnant everyone was like, ‘What?’ They didn’t expect me to get pregnant,” she said.
But, she did. And so did a lot of other teenagers.
The U.S. leads industrialized countries in teen pregnancies with 229,715 babies born to mothers between the age of 15 and 19 in 2015 according to the Centers for Disease Control. However, 2015 marked the sixth straight year the teen birth rate in the country has declined to record-low numbers and it has been on the decline for decades but teens are still having babies. According to the Pew Research Center—a nonpartisan organization that polls the public on trends, demographics and social issues—for every 1,000 teen girls, there were 25 live births in 2016.
In 2015, Weston was one of them.
“He was late!” Mullen said, sitting under the structure that shields Kennedy’s outdoor basketball court from the rain. If not for the dozens of photos she scrolls through on her phone to find the perfect snapshot of her son, it would be hard to tell she was a mother.
“People say that. Even new students that come to Kennedy say, like, ‘No way you’re a mom.’ But I am,” she said. “They understand that here and Brandi is here.”
Brandi Baker-Rudicel, the teen parent coordinator in South Lane, Odysseyware and Health teacher at Kennedy, is all things to teen parents in Cottage Grove. She answers questions and provides reading material for curious or confused expectant mothers but she’s also driven girls to pre-natal appointments and temporarily cared for a baby when its mother was sick.
More than anything, Baker-Rudicel understands teen moms. She gets them because she was once one of them.
At 16, she found herself pregnant, at Kennedy and looking for a way forward. She found Gay, Al Kennedy’s wife.
“She would get me connected with housing resources because me and my boyfriend at the time were out on our own. She would make sure that I was on track for graduation. She would make sure that I would understand where to get WIC. How that all worked. She would make sure I would you know, shots. Just everything,” said Baker-Rudicel. “I had somebody to talk to, I know I was dealing with some mental health issues at the time and she would make sure I was connected with counseling, getting ready for college. I don’t think I ever would have went to college if it wasn’t her idea.”
Now, married for 20 years, Baker-Rudicel provides that same guidance for teen parents throughout the district. On call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, she directs students to housing, mental health and other resources in a bid to make staying in school and earning a diploma a possibility when statistics suggest otherwise.
“If it wasn’t for Kennedy, I don’t think I would be able to do it,” Mullen said. In mid-January, she had only a few credits left before graduating and was beginning to plan out her future.
Nationwide, approximately two percent of teen mothers finish college before the age of 30. Mullen has her eye on community college and then, maybe a university.
Not every teen mother in South Lane School District ends up at Kennedy but every teen mother encounters Baker-Rudicel who helps them not only with the logistics of contractions during the school day or mothering while studying but with the stigma teen parents still face.
“Teen parents get looked at under the microscope by everybody: by staff, by community members, by friends, family,” she said. “And they don’t have the prefrontal cortex going yet, they don’t have all these things going yet and they’re doing the best they can and trying to be a teenager at the same time.”
In February, Baker-Rudicel’s workload decreased slightly at Kennedy. Mullen graduated, leaving the school without any teenage parents.
“Last year was a big year for teen parents, the district had 21,” Kennedy Principal Halie Ketcher said. When asked if they all graduated, Ketcher nodded and added, “Or stopped coming to school.”