BAR HARBOR — One toddler and five other children who aren’t yet old enough to walk go to Mount Desert Island High School almost every day.
They hang out with each other and their caregivers in the “baby room” while mom or dad spends the day in classrooms, visiting the children during breaks.
The high school’s Child Care Program, the only one of its kind in Maine, started 30 years ago when Jeannie Bishop, a teacher, realized that teenage mothers needed help if they were to stay in school. She obtained a grant to help buy materials and get the program set up.
One of the first beneficiaries was Angel Hochman of Bar Harbor. Her daughter, Ally, was born 29 years ago, on March 29, 1988.
“There were several of us in my U.S. history class that year who were pregnant,” Hochman said.
She graduated that spring, but then went back for an extra year so she could take the parenting class the high school offered in conjunction with the child care program.
“I had never baby-sat and didn’t even know how to change a diaper,” she said. “I had no idea what I was doing. I needed to know more about how to raise my child.
“In the child care class, they also taught us how to balance a checkbook, and they taught us about simple meals and household planning and paying rent. It taught us a lot of life skills that we have continued to use.”
Hochman said that if there had been no child care program, she could have gone to school with the help of her family, but other girls didn’t have that option.
“They would have had to drop out or give up their babies.”
Currently, all six children in the child care program have a parent who works at the high school. None are students.
“It’s open for anyone who is in the building,” said Kathleen Slack, who teaches family and consumer science and serves as director of the child care program. “Parents who are staff members pay for it. It’s free for parenting students.
“Babies can come here as early as six weeks. We generally keep them until they are in their second year, and then move on to another program on the island. The baby of a parenting teen can stay until the parent graduates.”
Tami Willis is the full-time staff child care provider. She supervises the high school students who take the parenting class, which involves helping to take care of the babies.
“The students really love it,” Slack said. “For some of them, it’s why they come to school. I often hear amazement in their voices as they witness the incredible growth and development in their charges.”
Slack said the hands-on child care experience and the semester-long class that students take online have multiple benefits.
“It prepares them for parenting, of course, but also for child care jobs, teaching and medicine,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of students who went on to be nurses and [physician assistants] and go to medical school.”
Typically, 16 students take the class each semester.
Slack said there are very few high school staff members with babies who don’t take advantage of the child care program.
“It’s convenient, and they like the support and having their baby nearby,” she said. “It’s much easier for nursing moms, of course. I only hear positive things about it.”
Shelagh McLoughlin, a social studies teacher, started bringing 5-month-old Tadhg to the high school’s baby room a couple of months ago.
“My two older children were here, too,” she said. “It’s an amazing program. We’re lucky to have it.”
Bekka Paine, an ed tech and mother of 11-month-old Luella Wheeler, also described the child care program as “amazing.”
“I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have child care,” she said.
Desiree Sirois, who teaches health/physical education, brings her 2-year-old, Sawyer Graham, to the baby room. She said the child care program helps make it possible for young families to live and work on MDI.
As Slack sees it, the program is good not only for parents, their babies and the care-giving students, but for the high school as a whole.
“It has a very positive effect on the atmosphere of the school,” she said. “It adds to the nice community feel of it.”