In first year, Aurora charter school helps young parents learn

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AURORA | When Ebony Olivas was 17, she thought her days in the classroom were over.

“I kind of felt lost,” Olivas says. “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to finish high school and graduate.”

That was last May, when she was a junior at Aurora Central High School and had just discovered that she was pregnant with her son, Cain.

“I was nervous about how others were going to react,” Olivas, now 18, says. “I was kind of scared and I didn’t know if I was going to continue, but my mom was always big on me graduating and getting my stuff done, so she really pushed me.”

At the behest of her mother and nurses at the New Mother’s Clinic at Children’s Hospital Colorado, Olivas looked into New Legacy Charter School, a northwest Aurora charter school catering to pregnant and parenting teenagers that was set to open in the middle of her pregnancy.

This week, she became one of New Legacy’s first-ever graduates.

“It’s opened my eyes, I guess, to a new chapter,” Olivas says of her and Cain’s year at New Legacy. “(Graduating) is going to be a bittersweet moment.”

Olivas was one of nine students who graduated in New Legacy’s inaugural class this week.

The New Legacy graduation, which took place Wednesday morning, marked the end of a rewarding, yet challenging year, according to Jennifer Douglas, founder and executive director of the school at 2091 Dayton St.

“There have been a lot of ups and downs,” Douglas says of the school’s first year of operations. “We’ve learned so much, but we were doing everything for the first time, so it’s just tough.”

The school finished the year with about 85 students — 85 percent of whom are female — enrolled in classes, and 60 children in the school’s in-house early learning center, which provides day care services just a few hundred feet from where students take classes, according to Douglas. She says about half of the students at New Legacy dropped out of high school before starting at the new charter.

“Becoming a parent at a young age does not mean the end of your education or that you can’t have a career,” Douglas says.

National statistics from the U.S. Department of Education claim that only about 50 percent of young mothers who have a child before they turn 20 receive their high school diploma by age 22.

New Legacy opened last fall in a brand new, roughly 22,000-square-foot building, constructed in partnership with the Urban Land Conservancy.

Douglas started the charter school, which operates as part of the state-run Charter School Institute, after discovering that the five ZIP codes surrounding the school in northwest Aurora account for the highest teen birth rate in the metro area.

Douglas and her staff strived to create processes — including a delayed start time one hour later than that of Aurora Public Schools, half days on Fridays and private nursing rooms where new moms can breastfeed — that make the transition to parenthood as seamless as possible.

Those hacks have been crucial for students like 17-year-old Jenny Soto, another student who graduated from New Legacy this week.

Soto, whose son, Erick, will turn 2 years old next month, dropped out of Gateway High School after she found out she was pregnant in November 2014.

“I didn’t go anywhere, and I didn’t care,” she says. “It was whatever to me.”

But since starting at New Legacy this year, she says that the caretakers in the school’s ELC have been “like second moms.”

“They’ve just helped me through so much,” she says. “It’s just been a good experience and really opened my eyes to education. At this school, you’re not alone.”

Both Soto and Olivas plan to attend the Community College of Denver and eventually transfer to the Metropolitan State University of Denver to study nursing.