I was an unmarried teenage mother. Today – hard as it is for me to believe – I’m New Mexico’s 2022 Teacher of the Year. This is the story of how I got here, and it’s a story that matters as our state works to attract and keep good teachers and to create a more equitable education system for all.
I grew up in Las Cruces, where my father was a teacher and then a school principal. It was just assumed that I would graduate from high school and then go to college. But I became pregnant my junior year of high school. As a 17-year-old mother, I didn’t see a path to earning my diploma, much less completing a college degree.
That’s where a program called the Graduation Reality and Dual-Role Skills program stepped in. This program, known as GRADS, helps pregnant teens and young parents remain in school through graduation, have healthy pregnancies and healthy babies, learn practical parenting and child-development skills, and prepare for economic independence.
New Mexico’s GRADS program has helped 18,950 students since 1989. In 2020, 417 students were served in 26 programs statewide, and the average graduation rate for those enrolled was 77% over the last five years.
Thanks to GRADS, I finished my coursework and graduated six months ahead of my classmates – time I used to care for and bond with my infant before starting college in the fall, right on schedule. Although it took me six years as a single parent to get my degree, I got it and was able to fulfill my dream of becoming a teacher.
This program opened a door for me that I thought had been closed. That’s why I felt called to bring GRADS to New America School-Las Cruces, where I now teach. Last year, my school had about a dozen teen parents and a couple of expecting parents, and they aren’t alone: New Mexico’s teen birth rate of 24.4 births per 1,000 women is the eighth-highest in the United States.
Teen parents can’t come to school without reliable child care, so now our school has a licensed child care center with developmental activities for the babies while the parents attend classes. But parenting is just one of many obstacles to graduation my students face. They have to hold down jobs to help support their families. Or they have to take care of younger siblings when the parents have to go to work.
That’s why New Mexico must expand the traditional K-12 path to graduation. There must be as many ways to help our students graduate as there are obstacles to graduation. Listening to my students’ stories made me realize it doesn’t matter when you get your high school diploma as long as you get it.
Education is the path out of poverty. It is essential to lifelong health and happiness. My goal as New Mexico’s 2022 Teacher of the Year is to spread that message and work to remove the obstacles that prevent more of our students from achieving their dreams.
Lorynn Guerrero teaches English Language Arts and GRAD at New America School-Las Cruces.