LAWRENCE – A third of young women who drop out of high school cite pregnancy or parenting as a key reason. Janesa Rosamaria Rapaglia-Santos of Lawrence wasn’t going to let that happen to her. On June 9, she will don a cap and gown with her two young sons by her side, and graduate from the Phoenix Academy-Lawrence with nine other seniors. But her path to graduation wasn’t straightforward.
Rapaglia-Santos found out she was pregnant with her first son after she graduated eighth grade. She was pregnant during the first few months of her freshman year at Lawrence High School, and tried to hide it by wearing loose clothes – she said she was ashamed. But she liked school.
“I was in honors classes, I liked writing,” she said.
“Jalijah got sick, he was in and out of the hospital, and I went with him so I missed a lot of school,” she said. She eventually stopped going.
Rapaglia-Santos found out about Phoenix Academy through her older brother Carlos, who was going there at the time. He wasn’t doing well in school either, and Rapaglia-Santos’ mother didn’t want her to transfer.
“My mom told me I wasn’t going to make it when I got pregnant,” she said.
But Rapaglia-Santos made the choice to enroll herself at Phoenix Academy. She called the principal of the school and within a week had started classes – it was the middle of the quarter and she wasn’t receiving credit, but she went every day anyway.
Phoenix Academy is an alternative high school in Lawrence Public Schools district. Operated by the Phoenix Academy Charter Network, the school opened in 2012 as part of state receiver Jeffrey Riley’s turnaround plan for the district.
From six months old, Jalijah enrolled in the Phoenix Little Scholars Program at the child development center in the school.
“He’s kind of a flagship kid here,” said Amber Sinicrope, development coordinator at Phoenix Charter Academy Network. “Our approach is a two-pronged, two-generation approach to tackling teen pregnancy.”
The program provides instruction from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. Phoenix classes run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., so students can receive extra support after school, participate in activities and clubs, and serve detention, if needed. Some 13 percent of students at Phoenix Academy in Lawrence are parents, and more than half are considered “off-track” academically.
There is an academic component to the child care, so that children graduate “in-step” with their parents – Jalijah will be prepared to continue his education as his mother starts her first year at Northern Essex Community College in the fall.
“They do homework together, allowing for a role model aspect of watching their parents stay in school,” said Sinicrope. “Our mission is college and career preparation, so these people can have access to a middle-class life.”
When Rapaglia-Santos got pregnant again last year, she was afraid her education would be threatened once more.
“But I wanted to prove my family I could do it,” she said, “and to show [my kids] as a role model.”
She had a tutor again, and was worried she wouldn’t be able to return to school. But when school started back up, staff members drove to her teen living home in Lynn and picked her, Jayvian and Jalijah up every day – and dropped them off again at the end of the school day.
With that support system, Rapaglia-Santos began to thrive. She enrolled in Advanced Placement classes, made it on the honors roll, and went from a young woman afraid to speak in class to a commencement speaker.
“I couldn’t find the voice inside of me,” she said. But she said her voice flourished when she was at Phoenix.
She also joined the basketball team her final year of high school, something she always wanted to do.
“My freshman year, I was pregnant; my sophomore year I had gotten sick; last year I was pregnant again, so this year I finally played,” she said.
Rapaglia-Santos credits the staff at Phoenix for being there for her.
“I just take things day by day,” said Rapaglia-Santos. For other students in her position struggling to get an education, she said to never give up.
“Throughout my journey I have come through many obstacles,” she wrote in the speech she will give at graduation. “These obstacles define who I am today – a working mother, a student, a basketball player, but also somebody who goes through so much but will never give up. I am stronger because I was weak, solid because I was broken, and can stand up because I fell down.”