Sometimes you laugh. Sometimes you cry. When you spend some time at the Marian Pritchett High School, you're bound to do both. In fact, smiling through tears is not uncommon. While high school produces its share of melodrama, Boise's school for pregnant teens and unwed mothers brings life and even death into sharp focus.
New life is introduced continually as students give birth, introducing their infants to a new extended family at the school's day care. But tragedy can also cast a shadow over the school. A student lost her 4-month-old child to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome last year.
"Of course we all knew and loved the baby," said head teacher Deborah Hedden-Nicely. "Many of the girls attended the funeral. The student asked if she could continue to go to class here. She didn't want to face all of the questions in a traditional school."
Across the hall from Hedden-Nicely's classroom, there's a small room with a large whiteboard. One of the students drew a picture of mom and child, mom and child, mom and child and finally a mom with a line pointing up to heaven.
Hedden-Nicely smiled through teary eyes.
"You should know that she's doing very well. She'll graduate this spring."
Graduation ceremonies for Marian Pritchett seniors are emotionally charged. Each student is profiled in an audio-visual presentation, complete with baby pictures--their own and, of course, those of their children. Some students read poems. Some students sing. Everyone cries. But there is great optimism and with good reason. To the person, each graduate has a placement: either a new job or higher education. In fact, the Marian Pritchett success rate is rather astounding. The school boasts a negligible dropout rate and nearly 100 percent of students graduate.
Most everyone who has lived in the Treasure Valley for a few years knows something about the Marian Pritchett School. They might know it by its previous incarnation, The Booth Home (the school was renamed Marian Pritchett in 2002 for its longtime social studies instructor). In 1921 The Salvation Army opened a small hospital and home for unwed mothers in Boise's North End. Residents learned about cooking, housekeeping and typing. In 1963 the Idaho Legislature decided to turn the Booth Home into a fully accredited high school.
But what the Legislature giveth, the Legislature taketh away. In 2010 the Legislature's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee zeroed-out specific funding for the school, leaving it to the Boise School District to either find more than $500,000 to keep the doors open, or shutter the nearly century-old institution. But the district and The Salvation Army accomplished what many considered the impossible. Through a difficult combination of job cuts and service eliminations, a bare-bones budget was cut down to the marrow. The same budget challenge looms for 2012.
"It was a minor miracle last year," said Hedden-Nicely. "The Legislature could re-appropriate the money at any point in the future. This school is still a part of Idaho code."
The chief reason for its special consideration in Idaho law is rather simple: The students are pregnant. Lumping the students into an alternative-school categorization would not consider their needs for maternity leave. The girls at Marian Pritchett are not afforded what some would consider a traditional maternity leave of 60 to 90 days. They're given two weeks (or 10 school days), but they are also expected to keep up with all of their studies and assignments.
Teddy-Lynn Pitka acknowledged that carrying a full load of classes while carrying a baby is daunting.
"I had a few complications," said Pitka. "My baby kept trying to come early."
The 18-year-old senior had a tough go of it. The father of her baby wasn't happy when he found out about the pregnancy.
"He tried to have one of his friends push me down the stairs," said Pitka. "He's not a keeper, that's for sure."
She said she has a keeper now--a boyfriend in California. But first things first. Pitka is taking 10 credit hours in this, her last semester, which will give her more than enough credits for graduation. Her plans include business school and in the not-too-distant future, a career as a fashion designer. She's building an impressive portfolio of drawings that she has already shared with two professionals.
"It fascinates me that so many of the girls here don't consider themselves very good students," said English and physical education teacher Christine Murphy. "But they do so well here. When I look at their past transcripts with bad marks in traditional high schools, I'm certain it's because they faded into the background. I'm sure they would have dropped out if they hadn't come here. In a real sense, getting pregnant has been a blessing in more ways than one. They're getting an education and their child is getting a future."
Murphy, who has taught at Marian Pritchett for eight years, is a young veteran of Idaho schools. Following teaching assignments in Nampa, Weiser and at Borah High School, she was transferred "involuntarily" to Marian Pritchett.
"I was pretty frustrated at the time," said Murphy. "But when I arrived, someone told me 'Oh, you won the lottery.' I didn't know what they meant at the time, but I sure know now. It's the perfect place."