With graduation approaching on the second-to-last day of school at the Georgia Chaffee Teenage Parent Program, all seemed calm from the outside of the small school hiding by a highway exit in Fairdale.
Trees sway gently in the breeze, basking in the near-summer sun. Two empty strollers sit in their shade.
Inside the school, in the principal’s office tucked in a back corner of the larger front office, was a bit of a different story.
Principal DeLena Alexander is trying to explain the situation to a district spokeswoman, a reporter and a stream of administrators arriving for a meeting.
A senior, selected as a top example of a student who overcame barriers to graduation and was supposed to be profiled by Insider Louisville, suddenly had to leave earlier in the day. So it goes in the school dedicated to helping teen moms and those about to become one: Things comes up.
The life hiccup meant the growing group of school leaders was scrambling to find another senior willing and able to talk to a reporter about graduation, another senior who also dodged obstacles to get a high school diploma.
One was quick to point out that in a school of teen moms battling the odds, they had several examples of resiliency to choose from.
Eighteen-year-old Perla Contreras is one of them. Her family moved to California from Mexico when she was a kid. There, in middle school, she wasn’t interested in school.
“I didn’t care whether I was going to go to college, or whether I was even going to make it to high school,” she said. “I just didn’t care about my life, to be honest.”
Then, around her freshman year in 2015, she got pregnant. “I can’t be the same person. I can’t be this rebel person,” she remembered thinking. She was a kid having a kid, she said. “I was growing up with her, kind of.”
Soon after, her family moved to Kentucky — partially because of the unique program at Georgia Chaffee. The fresh start came with a rule from her parents: If she wanted their continued support, she needed to stay in school.
“This is for me to be able to change who I am and become better for her,” she said. “I got to make her life better, better than mine.”
Compared to other high schoolers, students in the TAPP program have a slightly typical day. They go to first period, then second, then third. But there’s an onsite daycare center for their kids, a medical clinic and parenting classes. Contreras credits the school’s set-up and supports for her ability to balance getting an education and raising a kid.
One thing most high schoolers don’t think about: Where, or even if, they’ll be able to breastfeed their baby. At TAPP, that question is answered.
“The good thing about the school is that I was able to come to school and I was able to breastfeed her … and they actually supported me with trying to breastfeed her and trying to get her attached and all that,” she said.
“It just made my life a little bit more easier,” she adds.
Contreras says she used to get up at 4 or 5 a.m., running on around two hours of sleep, to get her and her now 3-year-old daughter ready for the hourlong 6 a.m. bus ride. “I don’t know how I did it,” she said, laughing about how she used to do a full face of makeup. Now, she prefers sweatpants.
Motherhood and the things that come with it — sleepless nights, constant exhaustion — turn into significant barriers for students.
“Am I really going to make it?” she remembered thinking of the early days, and all of the days after.
When asked how she balances everything, her right eyebrow immediately shoots up. “I don’t know,” she says.
After four years at TAPP and on the eve of her graduation, she’s still not sure how she made it. She balances a job at a nursing home — using a CNA certification she received at TAPP — with going to school and raising her daughter, who is going through the “terrible threes.” She doesn’t have a ton of hobbies outside of “hanging out” with her daughter, named Perla after her.
After graduation, Contreras plans to go to Jefferson Community and Technical College this fall. She’s undecided on what to study but hopes to become a dermatologist.
Earlier this year, she was on the school’s Aspen Challenge team — an event where Jefferson County students had to find solutions to larger problems in society. Typically, they feel more mature than other high schoolers when they’re in the same room or on the same field trip.
At the challenge, they just felt like teenagers without kids. But she still saw differences between her team and others from JCPS. They had less time and more to handle.
“People were stressed out just because of the challenge,” she said. “And we were stressed out from the challenge, we were stressed out from the kids all day. So they’re like, you guys just inspire us.”
Her team, ultimately, won an award for resiliency.
“You go through the storm and the rain and all that, but you’ll see the rainbow and you’re like, ‘OK, I’ve made it this far.'”