At one St. Paul school, teen moms and their kids start the new school year together

A mom holds her daughter hand
Zyla arrives at AGAPE Head Start day care clutching her stuffy as her mom, Pama, carries a car seat on Wednesday in St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Students at AGAPE High School in St. Paul get off the bus carrying their book bags and car seats. The young mothers drop off their squirming babies and sleepy toddlers at the AGAPE Head Start child care center attached to the high school, where Keri Cook is there to greet them.

“Hello sweet girl,” Cook said to a mom and her baby getting off the school bus. As the center’s education coordinator, Cook oversees the programs and resources at the day care and instead of ordering extra pencils and scissors for the new school year, Cook is ordering more diapers and baby bottles.

“We come from very different worlds where we've got the little bitty babies on this side, they've got the moms on the high school side there too,” Cook said.

A person checks Estrella body temperature
AGAPE Head Start's center education coordinator, Keri Cook, checks Estrella's body temperature before her entry to school on Wednesday in St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

AGAPE High School, which stands for Adolescent Girls And Parenting Education, is a St. Paul all-girls public school that helps teen moms finish their education while also providing child care at no charge. The day care center and the high school work closely together to provide the best care for teen moms and their children.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Cook has overseen the Head Start program after it took over the previous day care space in 2021. Going into its third year, Cook said she’s often inspired by the moms who come through the school.

“I think about [being] a teenager myself — getting myself ready and getting myself ready to go back to school and whatnot, school supplies, first day of school outfits,” Cook said. “These moms are not only getting themselves ready, their own supplies but they're also getting their kiddos ready.”

Nova, wrapped in her blanket
Nova, wrapped in her blanket, waits in the corridor at AGAPE Head Start day care on Wednesday in St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Head Start programs across Minnesota are funded by a mixture of federal funding through early learning scholarships and grants to provide low-cost or free child care for families in need. The Early Head Start program at AGAPE serves infants and toddlers with priority given to students attending the high school.

“We're very, very fortunate that these families are not only beating statistics, but they're knocking them out of the water, too,” Cook said. “They really are just making a difference. And what an example to be setting for their children.”

Minnesota has one of the lowest teen birth rates in the country, but teen pregnancy is still linked to a number of social and public health issues like intergenerational poverty and increased high school dropout rates. According to the Centers for Disease Control, only 50 percent of teen mothers receive a high school diploma.

A mother looking thorough the door
Pama Her checks on her child during the naptime on Wednesday at AGAPE Head Start day care in St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

When the lunch bell rings, Pama Her doesn’t head to the cafeteria, she first stops by the day care to check on her daughter Zyla.

Her had her daughter when she was 16 and she’s now 18 and a senior at AGAPE High School. She’s been at the school for two years, but she wasn’t sure this was where she’d end up.

“When I found out I was pregnant, I thought I couldn't keep up with schoolwork and with my education,” Her said. “I thought I was gonna drop out and be a mom with no diploma and certificates. I realized that I gotta keep going for me and the baby.”

Kids are playing in the classroom
From right to left: Nova, Madonna and De’Aura play in the classroom at AGAPE Head Start day care on Wednesday in St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

AGAPE opened doors Her said she didn’t know she had access to. The teachers were understanding if she needed to take a quick nap in class and the school had a day care on site that would send her text updates on her daughter and let her visit to check on her or nurse.

For this school year, Her’s biggest goal is to graduate with her diploma and college credits she gets from dual enrollment at a local community college.

“It's frustrating and hard to cope with schoolwork and having a child but they help you with everything you need, like car seats, with more information on how to get milk, food shelters and more,” Her said.

This year the day care has 32 kids enrolled across six classrooms. Twenty-one of those spots are families attending the high school and the others are community spots.

A person holds two car seats
Sally Silva carries two car seats as she brings her two children to AGAPE High School Head Start day care on Wednesday in St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Sally Silva has her two kids in those community spots, but she is also a recent graduate of AGAPE High School. Silva was ready to drop out of high school when she became pregnant with her oldest daughter.

“I went to Lakeview High School and I was planning on just dropping out because I was pregnant and I didn't feel comfortable going to a normal school and everybody's just looking,” Silva said.

A teacher reads a book
Diamond, a teacher, reads a book to Violet during a book reading session at AGAPE Head Start day care on Wednesday in St. Paul
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

A counselor was able to connect Silva with AGAPE, where all of the students were going through the same thing she was. She said she’s happy she was able to graduate high school and find care for her kids with people she trusts. It was a simple decision to keep them at the Head Start program.

“Basically, they will just help you,” Silva said. “They don't care what it is, they will help you out.”

AGAPE has a mental health team that works with young moms and their families. They are also able to connect families to resources that can help them through homelessness or food insecurity.

A person poses for a portrait
Teacher Mahlet Mehari poses for a portrait while playing with Za' Riyah Reggs at AGAPE Head Start day care on Wednesday in St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Mahlet Mehari is an infant and toddlers teacher at AGAPE Head Start. She starts off the school year with home visits for the kids enrolled her in class, so she can connect with parents and talk about their goals.

“These are teen moms,” Mehari said. “So you got to take in consideration that they are teenagers. So you have to have that mindset of like, they are the parent and also, they are also learning as well. So everybody's learning together. We're all here for a reason to help their child grow and develop.”

Both the high school and the day care work together to support the young mothers and help them continue their education with the best resources available. They want moms to know that when they walk through the Head Start doors, it’ll be stocked with formula, diapers and people who are excited for their family’s futures.

Madonna and her father arrive
Madonna and her father arrive at AGAPE Head Start day care on Wednesday in St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News