School of Life

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Clinicians, students help pregnant women and young mothers

By Anthony Giornalista

One of the class projects Ilena Banks remembers most from high school was interviewing a school nurse for an article she had to write. Subtly, she was also rewriting the script for teen mothers.

Banks, who has a 2-year-old daughter, was one of nine high school students who beat the odds and graduated in June from the Simpson Academy for Young Women, a school for pregnant women and young mothers in Chicago’s West Side.

Nationally, the high school completion rate for pregnant and parenting teens is only about 50 percent. At the Simpson Academy, the graduation rate has been at or near 100 percent in recent years, with the majority of graduates successfully transitioning to higher education.

“We were all in the same boat,” says Banks, 18, the class valedictorian. “We either sink or swim together. Everyone could relate to each other.”

Banks, who was 15 years old when her daughter, Aria, was born, is among the Simpson Academy graduates who will be attending college. She is headed to Northern Illinois University in the fall with a partial scholarship.

Surpassing expectations

The support Banks received at the Simpson Academy helped clear a path to success. She found encouragement and positive role models in people like Tanisha Winston, the lead nurse practitioner at the school-based health center at the Simpson Academy, which was opened in January 2012 by the College of Nursing at Rush University to help Simpson Academy students stay on track as they navigate pregnancy or raising a child.

“You could connect with Tanisha,” says Banks, who transferred to the Simpson Academy in her junior year after previously attending Proviso Math and Science Academy in Forest Park, Illinois. “She would always ask, ‘What are your goals and aspirations?’ Not only did she take care of my health, she was also a mentor. She was like a mama figure to everyone at the school.”

Winston, who was a teen mother herself, remembers being interviewed for Banks’ school project and believes it was an aha moment for the then-senior student.

“While she was interviewing me, she learned I also had a child at a young age, and that I had to multitask parenthood through college,” Winston says. “She stopped the interview and was like ‘Wow. How can I do that?’ She saw what she wanted, asked the right questions, got a little support from the administration at Simpson, and now she’s going to college. She far surpassed even her own expectations.”

On-site health care

Winston, her fellow nurse practitioners from Rush and students from Rush’s College of Nursing provide on-site health, mental health and educational services to students at the Simpson Academy.

The health services at the clinic include primary care, prenatal care, school and sports physicals, and contraceptive services. There is also an educational component. Time is set aside each week for prenatal classes, exercise and nutrition classes, and sessions on  healthy relationships and domestic violence.

In addition, clinic staff provide health care services for infants at a daycare center at the school.

“Day care was amazing,” Banks says. “It saved us money, and it helped me with my school schedule. They took my daughter in like she was family. It allowed me to focus on school and not on who was taking care of my daughter.”

‘I couldn’t just give up’

There was a time when Banks wasn’t sure if she would finish high school. Aside from the responsibility of raising a child, she grew up in the West Side’s North Lawndale community, which has one of the highest violent crime rates in Chicago. Thirty percent of neighborhood residents don’t have a high school diploma compared to 20 percent citywide.

And as a pregnant sophomore at a conventional high school, she sometimes felt like an outsider.

“I was down and depressed at one point because of everything that was going on,” says Banks, who was an honors student at her previous school. “It was so hard. I was just like, ‘Forget this.’ But I realized I couldn’t just give up, because everything I worked so hard for would go to waste.

“When I got to Simpson, it was open arms. There was no judgment there. When I was down, Tanisha would say, ‘What’s wrong? Come talk to me.’ And she would give me advice and help me through it.”

Winston was only too happy to help.

“I get it. I get their plight,” she says. “I get the fact that society sometimes looks at you as a mother first, and it’s suddenly all about the kid. I try to allow them to take on and embrace the role of motherhood but also help them fulfil their destiny and their purpose. It’s great to see these young women who have sacrificed and struggled — had moments of doubt — finally persevere .”