Tericka Powell knows well the difficulties of being a teen parent trying to raise a child while going to school.
"... It was a roller-coaster," she recalled. "I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and child care was in Silver Spring," said the former Anacostia High School student. "I usually missed a lot of periods. I felt like throwing in the towel. My child got sick, I missed a lot of days and I felt like tossing a year."
But unbeknownst to Powell, 21, her counselor in a local teen parenting program met with her chemistry teacher and asked others to give her a chance. That project, the New Heights Program, plucked her from a bad situation that could have gotten considerably worse.
She had transferred to Anacostia High School into a crazy reality of killings and robberies, no mentors, a generally unsupportive family and her father absent from her life.
"I was home, my daughter was sick and they worked with the chemistry teacher trying to make it better for me," said Powell, who is a nursing assistant at Providence Hospital in Northeast. "She asked them to give me a chance and they said chill out. They talked to Miss Victoria. I'm in college now. They don't play."
Miss Victoria is Victoria Bellard, a program coordinator for the New Heights Program at Anacostia High School who Powell and several young women credited with helping steady and transform their lives.
Powell, Quontice Watkins, Jennifer Hernandez and Tanicka Smith were panelists at a New Heights Summit on Friday, August 3 at Eastern Senior High School in Northeast. More than 100 people including young women and representatives from a mélange of District agencies, partnering organizations and others who work with teen parents attended.
Smith called her story "more interesting" than that of the other panelists.
"I was 15 and lived with an aunt," she said. "I received $100 a month and had a difficult time getting to school. I couldn't focus or study, had no child care and had to walk to school. I was under pressure and didn't know what to do – I was so depressed."
Nineteen-year-old Jennifer Hernandez had little family support raising her daughter and her living situation was tenuous at best. She lived on her own and the only income she had was whatever she was able to muster.
"I had to work really hard to get to school," she said.
All the young women said the New Heights Program and their dedicated counselors saved them.
"I have accomplished a lot," gushed Hernandez. "I have a good job, a resume and cover letter. Thanks to her [my counselor], I start school in the fall."
Hernandez said she plans to study social work to give back to the community and help teen moms, while Smith attends St. Paul's College in Lawrenceville, Va., pursuing a degree in criminal justice.
The New Heights Program is a school-based service delivery program which concentrates on some of the school system's most vulnerable and disengaged students. Program staff helps expectant and parenting students stay in school, connecting them to resources, and help them to gain relevant life skills by the time they graduate from high school, and equipping them with a viable post-secondary plan.
When the New Heights Program was created in 1990, the program only served two schools but thanks to an infusion of federal funds, the program has been expanded to include 13 District and two charters schools. More than 300 teenagers are in the program and New Heights staff has conducted 600 workshops.
District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson praised the program as something offering "bigger, better, broader solutions to a perplexing problem."
"I'm excited that we've moved from a small program to serve expectant mothers and fathers as well. We understand that that is an important part of the puzzle," Henderson said. "This is a gathering of partners with the same vision and federal resources, non-profits and the faith-based community. We have to work together to create a web of support to make these young people successful."
Special guest and keynote speaker D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier praised the program and said having such support when she was a teen mother would have made a big difference in her life.
"I wasn't invited today because I'm police chief. I was a teen mother ... it wasn't something that got applause back then. There was no program like this on my journey. Much as I avoid telling this story, I'll tell it today," said Lanier who grew up in Tuxedo, Md.
Lanier, who has been the city's police chief since 2007, recounted a childhood that she said was good. However, when her parents split, her stay-at-home mom struggled to raise three children with no income. Lanier said the family was very poor, subsisted on federal assistance and received help from the church.
"During that time, I played soccer and softball and mom was always there. I was a talented and gifted student who loved school and got good grades," Lanier said of her childhood.
But as she transitioned into her teen years, she said she started getting into trouble when she transferred to a new school and her mother went back to work.
"Like most teens I started getting into trouble," said Lanier. "We got jumped the first day we went to school and that went on until we figured it would be better for us if we jumped them first."
Lanier said she couldn't stand going to school and started skipping.
"Mom and I went out together to take the bus. She would get on the bus and I would be picked up by my friend," Lanier said with a laugh.
She said she made "really bad decisions" which included 19 days of absences per quarter, failing math and English, truancy and courting trouble.
"I was still making "good" decisions, and in my wisdom, I hung out with much older folks," she said, appearing to still regret those choices.
Lanier said she ran away with her much older boyfriend and became pregnant at age 15.
The marriage didn't last long and having her son pushed Lanier to do all she could to protect him and ensure that his life turned out much differently from hers. After dropping out in 9th grade, she sneaked out and earned a GED, started working as a waitress and began taking courses at the local community college. She joined the Metropolitan Police Department, worked nights, took courses at the University of the District of Columbia during the day and now boasts two master's degrees.
Her son graduated from DeMatha High School and Frostburg State University and now works in retail making $10 an hour after a not-inexpensive but quality education, she joked.
Lanier encouraged the teens to stay the course.
"In 9th grade, they wanted me out of school," she said. "A lot of people will try to judge you, paint you into a corner, say you'll amount to nothing. I'm the first female police chief in the nation's capital with master's degrees. Don't give up ..."