Regina teacher who beat the odds helps other teen moms graduate
Indigenous students in Saskatchewan graduate at half the rate of non-Indigenous students
At the age of 14, Nicole Morrow got pregnant and bounced from foster home to group home in Regina.
In a province with a chronically low graduation rate for Indigenous students, about one in three at the time, Morrow admits she was destined to become another drop-out statistic.
"When you live that kind of life, that sense of belonging that you need to be successful isn't really there," Morrow said.
It took her seven years to finish high school, during which time she gave birth to three babies, but Morrow persevered and earned her diploma in 1999.
Everything I've done has been to get me here, to give back to what I took from.- Nicole Morrow, teacher at Shirley Schneider Centre
The Métis woman went on to become a teacher so that, nearly two decades later, she could return to Balfour Collegiate's teen parent support centre to help other girls graduate.
"I've mentored teen moms for years. I worked in a group home that I once lived in, for teen moms. Everything I've done has been to get me here, to give back to what I took from."
Morrow's personal story can not only inspire, but provide insight to what would prevent Indigenous students from dropping out.
Low graduation rates among Indigenous students
Ferguson notes that poor student engagement is often to blame, that schools don't help Indigenous students feel a sense of belonging at school, connect with teachers, or participate in activities.
A sense of belonging
For Morrow, the importance of creating a "sense of belonging" cannot be overstated.
She became a ward of the government when she was just 12 years old and entered the foster care system. In 1993, Morrow gave birth to her first daughter just two days after her 15th birthday. She was living in a Salvation Army group home for teen moms that helped her enrol in the high school program, now called the Shirley Schneider Support Centre for Teen Parents.
"I can honestly say it was the passion of the teachers in this program who just would not give up on you regardless of how often you skipped, how many issues you had," Morrow said. "When you walked through the door, it was 'We're glad you are here.'"
A place to feel at home
At the Shirley Schneider Centre, baby strollers line the hallway, a diaper change station sits inside the door, and a free breakfast of yogurt, muffins and apples is laid out at the back of the classroom.
When life outside of school is falling apart, you can't focus on school.- Nicole Morrow, teacher at Shirley Schneider Centre
"We create a really good sense of belonging here. The girls come, they don't feel people are looking at them weirdly or judging them for having a baby," Morrow said.
Girls can access donated clothing, bus passes, and breakfast and lunch programs. Morrow says most of the students live in poverty and providing food is a basic, but necessary, enticement.
"If you feed them, they will come!" she said, with a chuckle.
Two full-time support workers help the girls overcome barriers in their personal lives, such as accessing housing, social assistance, food banks, or legal aid.
"When life outside of school is falling apart, you can't focus on school," Morrow said.
A nurse practitioner and health workers do prenatal visits, give vaccinations, and hand out birth control. An addictions counsellor deals with drug and alcohol problems. An Elder visits the centre to provide cultural and parenting lessons.
'I felt overwhelmed'
Perhaps most important, daycare is available for 36 infants, as young as two weeks old, and 12 toddlers.
Taye Starr Bellegarde, 17, is on track to graduate high school on time. The teenager felt overwhelmed commuting from her home on Star Blanket Cree Nation to the high school in the town of Fort Qu'Appelle, so she moved to Regina with her boyfriend to attend Balfour Collegiate's program.
"I'm always happy to come to school," Bellegarde said. "They're very good if you're late, or have to miss a day. They're very understanding because they know we have children."
Her daughter sleeps at the daycare down the hall while she learns math. Bellegarde can leave class to breast-feed the baby when she's hungry.
"I'm getting good grades and I'm able to just walk down the hall to daycare to see her," Bellegarde said.
At this centre, 35 moms, most of them Indigenous, will graduate this year, and for some it's a family first.
"There are some girls here that have been like, 'I'm the first one to get a Grade 12 out of my whole family, nobody else has done it,' and I know it does give them a sense of pride and that they will pass down to their children," Morrow said.
Morrow knows that leading by example makes a difference — two of her children will complete their university education soon.