In an average week at Kennedy High, it is not uncommon to find a handful of students clustered in a vacant room, picking apart chicken sandwiches before eating them while watching videos touting the dangers of shaken baby syndrome or the importance of proper nutrition.
But this is not a specialized health class. Like many national, state and local programs, these weekly meetings allow teen mothers, both expecting and raising children, to gather and learn parenting skills in the hopes that they will not go the way of common statistics.
And although the classes are open to babysitters, teen fathers or any high school student who has contact with babies, they're heavily populated by teen mothers, fashionably camouflaging the physical effects of pregnancy.
Yajaira Briganty-Lugo was there once. As a pregnant 13-year-old, she split her duties between life as a student and her life as an expectant mother, in order to narrowly escape statistics that show only one out of three pregnant teens graduates high school.
But Briganty-Lugo said she learned some things from that experience, enough to discourage her from subsequent pregnancies and motivate her to provide for her son.
The second of three daughters to a strict Puerto Rican mother, who was first married at 17, Briganty-Lugo said, the only conversation she had with her mother about reproduction was devoid of explanations, but instead a mandate to not have sex.
"My mom was very strict," she said. "She was like 'you don't ask me questions about sex. If you like a boy, I don't want to know about it."
But she began having sex at age 12, after sleeping over a friend's house with her mother's permission.
A year later, Briganty-Lugo said the fact that she had a missed a few cycles didn't really register with her. She just thought it was natural. So when her older sister became pregnant and was no longer able to go to Puerto Rico for the summer, Briganty-Lugo took her place, unaware that she was pregnant.
"She knew my sister was active, and she didn't put her on birth control," she said, adding that there's a difference between condoning the activity and protecting a person.
It wasn't until Briganty-Lugo came back and her mother confronted her with a pregnancy test that she found out the truth.
"I never say my son's a mistake, because I wouldn't call him that, but it was an experience," she said, adding that her son took priority over after-school and weekend activities. "As soon as we got home, the babies were ours and I think that's how teens differ, because a lot of parents want their children to still be teens and graduate from high school."
That shift is what has Briganty-Lugo, establishment supervisor of the Montgomery County Office of Child Support, concerned about pregnant teens.
"I was scared and scared my son would go without," she said, adding that some teens she meets don't have the same perspective.
Briganty-Lugo, now 26, attributes that to her mother, 48, whom she saw work two jobs, while single, to provide for the family. So she endured the high school years of sharing a bedroom with her son, sister and niece and the late night feedings and screaming of her sister's baby in her mom's two-bedroom apartment.
"My baby was a good baby; he'd eat and go to sleep," she said. "My sister couldn't handle it. She would cry with her baby."
Now Briganty-Lugo said she tries to foster an open relationship with her younger sister, 15, and her son, 12, the way she wished her mother had.
"I tell her I'm proud of her every day," she said, of her sister who lives with their mom in Florida. "I tell her if she feels she needs to try something she can come to me and if we need to get the birth control on the side or whatever, that's what we'll do."
When it comes to her son, Briganty-Lugo says she is tough, but not unreasonable.
"I was 12 when I lost my virginity, and when I see my son, I'm like 'no, you shouldn't be doing that. No, don't do that,'" she said. "With my son, we have open communication. I think it's a matter of parents instilling in them that self motivation, that desire to work for more."
But she admits she has applied the pressure of pinky swearing to the conversation, in hopes that her son will not have sex before eighth grade. She is also quick to remind him that "there's a reason I had you, but you don't have to have a baby."
And although Briganty-Lugo graduated high school and has made her way into a line of work she enjoys, her life has not been without the personal drama with her son's father or a few failed courses in the pursuit of an associate's degree for her current position. She has even gotten married, but acknowledges the rarity of successes in teen mothers' lives, given the various factors.
"I really think it's personal. Your background of course has a lot to do with you can accomplish, but you can't put the burden on 'oh my mom beat me; my mom's strict,'" she said. "My advice is your child should be your focus and that should be your motivation. And I think that's something that has to come from within—your desire to want to give them more and be an example for them."
Fia Curley is a writer for the OMHRC. Comments? E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org