As architects design the new Federal Way High School, some educators want the future building to include a child care center.
In fact, such a feature has the potential to reduce the dropout rate and teen pregnancy rates, all while supplementing education for the entire school.
Sherry Kerr runs the Teen Parent Program at Federal Way High School (FWHS). Each day, Kerr works with more than a dozen teen parents — including dads — to help them graduate.
The biggest obstacle to attendance is the lack of child care. Without child care, these teen parents have little choice but to skip school.
"Most have Grandma watch the baby. Otherwise, they stay home," Kerr said, adding that her class has an all-encompassing "whatever it takes to succeed" philosophy.
"We're here to graduate and move forward," she said.
As an extension of the state's GRADS (Graduation, Reality, and Dual-Role Skills) program, the class teaches more than academic lessons. These teen mothers and fathers learn practical life skills such as parenting, nutrition, employment and time management.
Federal Way student Allison Susedik, 19, retrieved lost credits and set the stage for graduation this month, thanks to support from Kerr's class. Now she is preparing for a summer job search.
"If I wasn't in this program, I don't know what I'd do," said Susedik, whose original graduation date was 2012.
As the mother of an 18-month-old son, Susedik relies on assistance from the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to pay for child care. Before she qualified for benefits, however, the lack of affordable child care meant missing months of school.
"I missed a lot and was really behind," she said.
Susedik said child care on the FWHS campus would be a big help, especially for students without reliable transportation or access to affordable care.
Michelle Green, a teacher at South Lake High School in Seattle, lauded her school's child care program and the difference it makes.
"My students would tell you that without the child care, they would be unable to attend school on a regular basis," Green said in an email. "The child care or Parent Education Lab, as we call it at our school, is there to not only provide a much needed place for the babies to go during the school hours, but also provide a place to foster breast-feeding, and help young mothers with one-on-one parenting skills."
Child care helps remove a critical barrier for teen parents.
"If you give them on-site care and transportation, they stay in school and tend to return to school," said Mary Nagel, program supervisor for family and consumer science education at the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).
Nagel oversees 585 teachers across the state in 31 different courses, which includes GRADS. The state received a $6 million grant last year to improve the program, Nagel said. On that note, Federal Way's GRADS program is one of two that lacks on-site child care.
Adding a child care facility in Federal Way will give the new high school a "learning lab" for other courses, Nagel said. In Sumner, for example, hundreds of students used the system to supplement their studies. Foreign language students taught songs to the children, and journalism students prepared books to read to the children.
Nagel commented that the program doubles as a de facto form of birth control, in the sense that teens involved in GRADS have fewer repeat pregnancies, while teens without babies can witness the work and commitment it takes to raise a child.
Mary Ann Yamaguchi is a health teacher in the Highline School District as well as a consultant for Federal Way schools. She has been involved with child care at the region's public schools since the 1970s. She urged the Federal Way School Board last month to consider on-site child care in the new FWHS.
"It's not something you want to think about as a retrofit," said Yamaguchi, noting the regulations for building a toddler-friendly facility. "If we're going to go forward with this, now's the time to have the conversation."
Schools are typically reimbursed through the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), she said. And while schools host the physical structure for child care centers, a private agency will typically handle the operations.
That's the case at Highline Community College, whose child care facility is run by Children's Home Society. Located on the Des Moines campus, the facility serves students and staff, but is also open to the public.
Yamaguchi suggested that Federal Way could take a similar approach by providing the space for little or no cost, then partnering with a social service agency.
Claire Wilson of the Federal Way School Board has spent her career in the education field, specifically in early learning. Wilson has worked with teen parents and praised the educational potential of a child care facility in Federal Way schools. Such a facility, she said, represents a logical extension of early learning programs in the state that reach preschool-age children.
Likewise, a child care facility can help develop life skills for teens who balance the roles of parent and student.
"In our focus on early learning, those early learners include children of the children we serve in Federal Way," Wilson said. "This isn't about advocating for young people to have children, but we can't negate the fact it has and will happen."