A low in the number of pregnant and parenting students at Sunset High School has led to an unforeseen dilemma local education officials are working to solve.

There are no pregnant or parenting teens attending Del Norte County Unified School District’s alternative high school currently, Principal Tony Fabricius said Thursday in response to a question from Trustee Frank Magarino. But there are also currently no slots available at the Early Head Start Infant Toddler Center at Sunset High School for the child of a pregnant or parenting teen, Fabricius said.

“The promise of Sunset has always been for students who are pregnant or parenting, there’s a place for you,” he said. “There’s a school for you at Sunset High School that you could have your child cared for by a state-regulated and professional staff while also attending classes and providing a respite for you while doing that.”

There is one child of a pregnant or parenting teen along with about two others on a waiting list currently, according to Melissa Ferguson, the district’s director of early education and development. She said the district, which oversees the Early Head Start Infant Toddler Center at Sunset High School is working to place all those children as quickly as possible.

The child of the Sunset High School student will likely be placed by December, Ferguson said.

“It’s not that the space isn’t there,” she said, adding that students who are parenting have priority enrollment. “It’s that we have to work with what we have and we have to wait until there’s a space available. Space is coming available in December.”

Sunset High School’s Early Head Start Infant Toddler Center has three spaces for infants up 18 months old and eight slots for toddlers ages 18 months-36 months, according to Ferguson.

The school district currently operates the Early Head Start Infant Toddler Center at Sunset, four state preschool classrooms and a district-funded preschool program at Smith River School, according to Ferguson.

Previously, the program had been funded through the California Department of Education for pregnant and parenting teens, according to Ferguson.

When that funding stopped, the district stepped in and began funding the Sunset High School Infant Toddler Center out of its general fund, said Jeff Napier, the district’s assistant superintendent of business. Though the facility provided a place where students at Sunset could breastfeed and interact with their children, there were some years when only three youngsters attended the Infant Toddler Center, Napier said.

“When Superintendent Olson was here, he started looking into the Early Head Start program as a way to use the facility better,” Napier said. “Early childcare in Del Norte County is so limited, especially for infants and toddlers, we went ahead and developed the Early Head Start program using the facility at Sunset since that’s an appropriate facility for it. Students at Sunset can put kids in if there’s space available.”

According to Napier, the Early Head Start Infant Toddler Center equates to an overall operating expense of $76,000 a year. The school district provides $30,000 out of its budget to fund the program, Napier said. The district is reimbursed for the remaining cost through the federal government, he said.

Enrollment in the Early Head Start program is based on the child’s age and their family’s income, Ferguson said. A parenting teen, because they typically don’t have a job or a very menial one, would be able to place their child in the Early Head Start program based on their income, Ferguson said.

However, to receive their full funding from the federal government, the program has to maintain its 11-space enrollment, Ferguson said. Holding a space isn’t possible, right now, she said.

“What happens is if I have a child who is 13 months old at the beginning of the school year and I have an opening in my toddler room, I have to hold that opening for that infant to move into because they continuously enroll through infant and toddler,” Ferguson said. “They move into that enrollment space and that opens up a space in my infant room and that’s what’s happening in December. I have children moving up who will leave room in my infant room.”

Children age out of the Early Head Start Infant Toddler Center on their 3rd birthday, Ferguson said. But for some youngsters this may create another dilemma: According to Ferguson, the district’s preschools begin enrolling youngsters at 3 years old, but they have to turn 3 on or before Sept. 1 of the school year.

“If the child ages out of our Infant Toddler Center in the middle of the year, we don’t have a place for them to go,” Ferguson said. “Right now we hope to get applications in for state preschool or Head Start programs in town and try to work them in as much as possible.”

Sometimes, the district is able to connect those families with home daycare centers, Ferguson said, enabling them to finish out the year that way.

“It is definitely a challenge to get them moved into a program as they age through the different stages,” she said.

Despite the current dilemma of not having slots available at its Early Head Start Infant Toddler Center for the children of pregnant or parenting teens at Sunset High School, Fabricius said the federal program has been a positive for his students and the community.

The federal money enabled the district to renovate the facility’s playground and interior, Fabricius said. The funding also enabled the Early Head Start Infant Toddler Center to be open longer hours, he said.

“Before it was a pretty limited operation where we were done by 12 o’clock with the staff, so anybody, any student who had a kid out there, basically had to leave school by that time because there wouldn’t be anybody out there to help watch the child,” Fabricius said. “But since we got this new funding, we have more staff and two different shifts. If we had a kid with a child in there, they could actually stay (at school) all day until 2:45 and have their kid watched the whole time.”

According to Fabricius, depending on the number of pregnant and parenting teens attending Sunset High School it’s not uncommon for them to bring their infant or toddler into the school’s hallway or the multi-purpose room. Students may also get called to the Infant Toddler Center during break to nurse their youngster or comfort them if they were having a bad day, Fabricius said.

“It’s really an endearing piece or part of what we do here; what we’re all about,” he said. “We’re going through some growing pains. It’s a good problem to have where you don’t have any students with babies out there.”

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com .

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