Local: Education

Lanier fights for teen parent program's funding

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Photo - Information supplied by the New Heights student support program at the New Heights Summit at Eastern High School. (Graeme Jennings/Examiner photo)
Information supplied by the New Heights student support program at the New Heights Summit at Eastern High School. (Graeme Jennings/Examiner photo)
Local,Education,Lisa Gartner

Cathy Lanier remembers taking the bus to school as a young teenager in the District.

She would get jumped by other students upon arrival, until she started jumping them first. Eventually, the future chief of the Metropolitan Police Department would wait until her mother hopped on her own bus to work, wave goodbye, then leave the bus stop and skip school.

She ran away briefly with her much-older boyfriend and, at 14, Lanier found herself pregnant.

Lanier rarely speaks in detail about her experience growing up as a single teenage mother who dropped out of District schools at 15. But as federal funding runs out for New Heights, a D.C. schools program aimed at keeping pregnant and parenting students from dropping out, the police chief agreed to share her story.

"They wanted me out of school," Lanier, now with two master's degrees under her belt, told a room full of D.C. educators, single mothers and activists. "They wanted the pregnant students away from the other students."

New Heights connects 600 District teenagers who are expecting or who have children with access to welfare, health care, child-care vouchers and support services. The program was running at Anacostia and Cardozo high schools before the District received $4.5 million in 2010 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to expand to 13 more public schools over three years.

The program holds workshops on healthy eating, parenting skills, financial literacy and employment opportunities, with attendees accruing "Baby Bucks" to trade in for diapers and children's clothes. The teens can also can earn points with good grades.

But the federal funding for New Heights is drying up after the 2012-13 school year, and D.C. Schools spokesman Fred Lewis said the city can't cover 13 of the 15 schools on its own. Lanier was invited to speak at a summit, along with a panel of young women who say they benefited from New Heights, to increase awareness of the program and attract new donors.

"I don't know where I would be -- dropout, dead, it was crazy, I was so young," said Tericka Powell, an Anacostia Senior High School graduate and the mother of a 3-year-old girl. Instead, Powell is a second-year student at the University of the District of Columbia, and aspires to be a nurse.

Tanicka Smith, who became pregnant at 15, said she was crying every night and considering giving her child up before she became involved with New Heights. She's glad, she says, because she couldn't imagine not seeing her 3-year-old every day. Through New Heights' incentive program, she earned a crib that adapted into a bed as her daughter grew.

Smith graduated from Anacostia in 2009. Nodding to Lanier, she noted that she's now in college, studying criminal justice.

lgartner@washingtonexaminer.com

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Lisa Gartner

Examiner Staff Writer - education
The Washington Examiner