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Funding uncertainty looms for program for young parents

Ashley Cook, 17, right, and Rachel Meijers, 16, study during their Graduation Reality and Dual Role Skills class at Independence High School. Both of the high schoolers say GRADS is crucial for them to balance raising their babies and finishing high school. (Shelby Perea/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Ashley Cook, 17, wasn’t planning on going back to high school when she found out she was pregnant with her daughter, Athena.

Rachel Meijers, 16, thought she would even be kicked out.

Amara Good, 19, assumed getting a GED was her only option.

And 19-year-old Moriah Martinez said she would have dropped out.

But the Independence High School students said GRADS – with its childcare, supportive teachers, resources, such as diapers, and sense of community – kept them in school.

Amara Good, left, and Moriah Martinez, both 19, were initially averse to joining the GRADS program at Independence High School because of the stigmas attached to it. But the class quickly became their favorite and they credit GRADS as the reason they are finishing school. (Shelby Perea/Albuquerque Journal)

Just like these students, many young parents in New Mexico credit Graduation Reality and Dual Role Skills, or GRADS, as the reason they are able to finish high school.

While 17,817 young parents have had similar stories about the program which is now in 26 high schools since its inception in 1989, GRADS is now facing a precarious funding crossroad.

In June 2020, its current, main funding stream will dry up.

Jeanne Johnston, director of GRADS in New Mexico, told the Journal that a federal grant being used to fund the program – which was originally intended for expansion – will run out at that time.

She said she is cautiously optimistic the Legislature will find funding for the classes.

But nothing is certain.

“I’m hopeful,” she said. “But I’m always nervous because it is funding.”

She said there are legislators who have been loyal to the program and who have found funding in the past.

However, the last seven years the state has given the program about $200,000 a year, according to GRADS funding documents.

That’s $600,000 to $800,000 less than what Johnston said GRADS needs for annual operations statewide.

Legislative situation

Once the grant expires, Johnston is planning to seek state dollars to make up for the gap.

Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said she was unaware of the expiring federal grant, and that’s why GRADS’ funding wasn’t addressed in the session that just ended, despite a huge budget surplus.

“It kind of got forgotten,” she said about the program.

She added that GRADS was just one of the many education funding issues legislators had to focus on.

“It’s a program that we support, she said. “It’s just not at the top of the priority list.”

But Stewart also said the state should fund GRADS “at the level they need.”

As for next year’s legislative session, Stewart said it’s too soon to say whether the budget will allow $800,000 to $1 million be set aside for GRADS.

There’s certainly verbal support for the program.

Legislators have championed it and there’s typically a “New Mexico GRADS Day” at the Roundhouse during regular sessions.

The state Public Education Department, which oversees GRADS, also touted and highlighted the initiative at a town hall earlier this month for young parents, holding it up as an exemplar initiative and a lifeline for young parents to continue their education.

Education Secretary Karen Trujillo, who was once a GRADS teacher, said this month that she wants to see the program expand.

PED Chief of Staff Daniel Manzano could not be reached for an interview but said in an email that the state agency is planning to apply for other federal funds “if they become available” and will also be seeking state dollars.

“We will be advocating that additional state funds be made available to support the expansion of GRADS statewide, especially in areas with teen birth rates higher than the state average,” he wrote.

He did not address questions from the Journal about why PED didn’t ask for more funding in the most recent session.

Funding history

GRADS in New Mexico has had a volatile fiscal history.

“It’s not something new,” Johnston said. “Dealing with federal and state funding you just never know.”

In the 2010-11 school year and during the recession, state funds for the program were cut about 70% compared to three years prior, or from $1 million to $288,668, according to GRADS funding documents.

What kept the organization afloat was a serendipitous interchange of dollars.

Before funding cuts, GRADS, with backing from PED, had applied for a federal grant earlier that year from the Office of Adolescent Health, which is under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The grant, which is the same grant that is about to run out in June 2020, kicked in the same year the state funding was slashed.

The original plan for the additional dollars was to expand GRADS, including offering it in more schools and boosting investment at current sites.

“We wrote in the grant to add two new sites a year,” Johnston told the Journal.

But when its state funding was gutted in the 2010-2011 school year, the focus shifted from expansion to sustainability and the federal grant had to be used for operations, according to Johnston.

The program got $846,719 in federal funding for that academic year.

Since then, the grant has served as the primary, albeit temporary, funding component for GRADS – barring the 2017-2018 school year in which the program did not receive federal dollars and had to rely on PED funding.

Ultimately, it’s the students who are impacted by cuts, Johnston said.

“It affects whether they have a GRADS class or not,” she said.

And for Good, the 19-year-old at Independence High student, it’s even more than a class.

“I’ve never felt more at home,” she said.

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