United Way Partner Agency Spotlight: GRADS

Jul 15, 2022

We often think of teenage years as being a time of youthful exploration, lower responsibility, and the true start of lifelong emotional, social and intellectual growth. Under ideal circumstances, that’s exactly what it can be— and what we hope it would be for everyone.

However, for many young people, teenage years are a lot more complicated than that, especially when it comes to teen pregnancy. For pregnant and parenting teens, the pressures of having to assume so many day-to-day adult responsibilities while also trying to excel in school can be intense. Pregnant and parenting teens must navigate school, home, and work lives while also figuring out the rhythms and routines of being a new parent.

According to the federal government, only about half of teen mothers earn their high school diplomas by the time they are 22 years old, compared to 90 percent of teenagers who do not give birth in high school.

This creates a snowball effect of reduced earning potential, diminished skill set, lack of employment opportunities and higher likelihood of living in poverty. This, in turn, can lead to a cycle that not only affects one generation, but also the generations that follow.

Enter the Bellingham Public Schools’ GRADS program, which provides crucial support to meet the varied and complex needs of pregnant and parenting teens and their children. GRADS uses creativity, compassion, and collaboration to help break the cycle of poverty. GRADS meets students where they are, providing wraparound services with the goal of smoothing the path toward graduation. School-based support for pregnant and parenting teens has been shown to be highly effective in keeping teens traveling down the road toward graduation and future opportunities.

We asked the amazing team at Bellingham Public Schools to share some information about the GRADS program, how it benefits pregnant and parenting teens and their children, and its unique partnership with United Way.

For those who may not know, how does your agency help individuals and families in Whatcom County? 

Bellingham Public Schools’ GRADS (Graduation Reality And Dual-Role Skills) program provides on-site, high-quality childcare for infants, toddlers and preschoolers, allowing pregnant or parenting teens to take classes and focus on graduation and future goals. GRADS is based on the understanding that in order to thrive, infants, toddlers and preschool-age children need a parent who is thriving. Thus, GRADS provides teen parents and their children with wraparound support to meet their physical and emotional needs in partnership with local nonprofit organizations.

Can you touch on the financial aspect of the families you serve? How does your program help promote financial stability?  

We strive to remove any barriers to graduation that a young parent may face. Earning their high school diploma creates job readiness and higher earning potential for students who might otherwise have to leave school to care for their child.

On a practical level, GRADS provides program supports with direct financial benefit, such as diapers, food boxes, transportation, formula, car seats, graduation caps and gowns, court support and parenting plans. GRADS students also gain access to childbirth and parenting classes, extended home-hospital care and tutoring, and help navigating prenatal care.

Who is your “typical” client? Or is there one? 

We try not to have a “typical student,” as parenting looks different to everyone. We help any pregnant or parenting individual hoping to obtain their high school diploma.

Most traditionally, we serve young mothers who are pregnant or parenting. They often receive Special Education services or qualify for English Language Learning support. At times we serve dads who have sole custody of their child, or parents who have lost custody of their children to the state. We are about supporting all families and doing what’s best for our youngest learners, the children of our students, so qualifying for GRADS is quite broad.  

Can you share a story of a child/family/client you have helped?

Here are a couple of stories that illustrate the heart of our GRADS program:

One student was three months pregnant with her son when her son’s dad died. Emotionally devastated by this loss, she wore herself out attending high school and working multiple jobs. She was put on bed rest, and she said she would have dropped out of high school if it weren’t for GRADS. Once her son was born, GRADS provided childcare for her baby at Sehome High School, and she completed her high school diploma. She now helps raise awareness about the benefits of the program to potential students.

grads kids

Here’s another student story:

Several years ago, we learned of a student attending one of our high schools who was pregnant and attending Running Start full time. She was in an especially difficult time in her life as she was caring for her own mom who was dying of cancer.

The GRADS teacher at the school reached out to her and she expressed wanting to “check out GRADS” but feeling overwhelmed by supporting her mom, who was living in the home with a full-time nurse, and attending her college classes. She and the GRADS teacher made a deal that she’d attend GRADS when able, knowing attendance might be sporadic.

During the last month of the student’s pregnancy, her mom lost her battle with cancer. When the student’s mom passed, the GRADS team wrapped around her by providing meals delivered to the porch, boxes from the food bank, supplies for herself and baby and attending the funeral of her mom to support her. The school has continued to support the student and her now-toddler child. This summer she’ll graduate with not only her high school diploma, but also her AA degree almost completed.

What are three things people may not know about your organization or services?  

  • GRADS has been part of Bellingham Public Schools for 28 years.
  • Since 2011, the program has expanded to have sites at Sehome, Squalicum, and Options high schools, serving more students and allowing more teen parents to stay in their neighborhood schools.
  • The program also serves students from the greater Whatcom and Skagit counties. It is the only program of its kind north of Everett.

What’s one thing you’d like to say to United Way donors and supporters? 

Thank you! The GRADS students of today are the families in our schools tomorrow. Our entire community benefits when we support young parents and their children as early as possible. We believe that together we can break the cycle of poverty for teen parents and their children.

Together, we can make a difference.

United Way is proud to help fund this critical program in Whatcom County, along with so many other nonprofits providing critical programs and services to increase economic mobility and break the cycle of poverty in our community.

Thank you to the team at GRADS for supporting pregnant and parenting students and the next generation of learners! Together, we’re building better futures for all of us.

Want to support this amazing work? Give here.

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