By Amanda Dyslin
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — The lunch bell tolled at 11:28 a.m., and senior Brittany Marcucci made her way down the stairs of Central High School.
She wasn’t headed to a cafeteria, but rather to a little room on the lower level of the Lincoln Community Center that for years had been a boys locker room and was turned into storage in recent years. But now, as she opened the door to room 110, instead of a dark closet space, Marcucci sees bright blue walls and murals, which she helped paint.
She sees new rugs, donated by Home Depot, and lots of toys. She also sees her baby girl, Anabelle Weber, 6 months old and pleased as punch to see her mommy after a few hours with new friend Gretchen Rialson.
Marcucci started putting Anabelle in Rialson’s care on Monday, when the Teenage Pregnancy and Parenting Program infant day care opened its doors. At no cost to her or any other teen parent enrolled in TAPP (elective classes), she receives day care during the whole school day with the added bonus of being just steps away if Anabelle needs her.
“Now I can finish school and graduate so I can make a good living for her,” Marcucci said.
More than 20 years ago a day care opened at the then-called Alternative High School and was run by Jean Jackson, family and consumer science teacher. About seven years ago, leadership of the day care was turned over to Adult Basic Education, which runs Lincoln Logs Learning Center day care for children of refugees, immigrants and GED students.
But the pre-school portion of Lincoln Logs has been growing significantly and space was limited, so last year Adult Basic Education made the difficult decision to turn the infant-care room into an additional preschool space, said Sarah Karau-Dauk, family and consumer science/TAPP teacher.
This was a concern to many people associated with TAPP, including Carolyn Nafstad, who was a TAPP teacher for 30 years. Karau-Dauk said statistics show that most teen moms drop out of high school and live in poverty with the fathers not around.
“Quality, affordable day care is essential for a teen parent to be successful academically,” Nafstad said. “Along with child care, these young parents and other (Central) students were learning parenting skills in an on-site, hands-on environment.”
That’s why Kathy Johnson, director of Central, and Karau-Dauk decided to reestablish an infant day care. The former locker room was just the space they needed.
Central even had students pitch in with the renovation; interior design students, including Marcucci, designed the murals and painted. Toys were donated by parents.
TAPP is a Mankato Area Public Schools program with 13 students enrolled. The district pays for building maintenance and staffing.
The Andreas Foundation provided $8,000 to the TAPP program for staffing and supplies and also donated $10,000 to help get the new infant care space established.
Any teen parent in the district (including East or West) may bring their baby to the TAPP infant day care as long as they agree to enroll in TAPP classes as electives at Central. They may then return to classes at their primary schools.
Students from other districts may enroll in TAPP and use the day care, but they must take a full day of classes at Central for just that day.
The TAPP classes focus on topics such as nutrition and meal planning, resource management, child development, interpersonal relationships and parenting skills.
The TAPP seminar is a more informal setting where students can create networks and build support systems. They also meet with a public health nurse, take Early Childhood Family Education and Ready! For Kindergarten classes, and get hands-on experience in the day care.
The day care can take a maximum of four babies, and Karau-Dauk said she has been talking with several other teen parents who have showed interest. So far just Anabelle and 11-month-old Skyabellin Langford are being dropped off by Central moms.
Rialson, who has a social work degree and a background in day care, said she was drawn to the position to get the chance to help young mothers stay in school. This week she’s been working on establishing a routine with her new little buddies, which includes naps, feedings, diaper changes and lots of playtime.
“I just think it’s awesome,” she said, adding that she likes to sit back and watch the young mothers interact with their babies.
Karau-Dauk said she’s been pleased and relieved to see the new space come together. She said many teen moms have families who can’t help with day care costs.
“They say, ‘I can’t afford to pay for my grandchild’s day care. I’m barely making ends meet as it is,’” Karau-Dauk.
Without the infant care center, Marcucci said she wouldn’t have been able to stay in school. Karau-Dauk said many other teens over the years would have come to the same conclusion.
“If they use the day care, they graduate,” Karau-Dauk noted of the pattern she’s seen over the years.
If there are no babies at the center in the future, the space could be turned into more pre-K space for Lincoln Logs, Karau-Dauk said.
“It’s great if teen pregnancy numbers go down,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s ever something that completely goes away, and we want to be able to support them.”
Both Karau-Dauk and Nafstad said they hope to make area teens aware that the day care is available if they need it.
“It’s just lovely,” Nafstad said of the new space. “(I hope) it may even generate some interest from moms that are home that aren’t in school right now.”