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‘I am incredibly strong’: a day at Taonga Teen Parent Unit | #datingscams | #lovescams | #facebookscams | #datingscams | #love | #relationships | #scams | #pof | #match.com | #dating

Manurewa hosts one of 23 schools allowing young mums to learn alongside their babies. Rachel Judkins heads along to see how a typical day unfolds. 

At a glance, the empty classroom looks like a typical New Zealand high school, but the plastic anatomy model is accompanied by one with a foetus in utero, and alongside the Te Tiriti o Waitangi poster is another offering advice on “SAFE SLEEP FOR PEPE”. Many of the desks are decorated with photos of ultrasounds, enlarged puku and newborn babies, and there are several bassinets on wheels within arm’s reach.

This is the Teen Parent Unit (TPU) in Manurewa, one of 23 state-funded schools in the country that enable young mums aged 13-19 to continue their education alongside their babies (the school is open to all, but a dad has never attended). The unit is attached to nearby James Cook High School and is named “Taonga” because every child is seen as a gift, and the unit a treasure that gives its students a second chance while helping them to become good parents.  

Many of the pregnancies are from the classic “whoopsie,” some are the result of abuse, but not all are unplanned. Contrary to society’s perceptions of teen pregnancy as a waste of the young mother’s potential, for many who come here, it’s a turning point, giving them purpose and a reason to go back to school. Nicky Leary, who has been teaching at the unit for 15 years, points out that “it’s a different path, but it doesn’t mean it is a lesser path.”

8.45am(ish – all times are approximate): the arrival

One by one three vans pull into the parking lot from their pick-up routes all over the Counties Manukau area. The students emerge slinging nappy bags onto shoulders and climb the steps with their precious bundles in their arms. There is a whirlwind of activity as the staff greet their students and coo over the tamariki, delighted by the sight of a new tooth in a gummy grin. One young mum rushes off to change a toddler’s nappy soiled on the drive in, while the only small baby of the group is passed around for cuddles. 

9.00am: the day begins

The group all assemble at the adjoining crèche for a quick karakia and sing-along before the mums prepare to leave for a day of learning in the classrooms down the hall. Some goodbyes seem easy; some are hard for both the child and the mother. But even though there may be tears, most of the parents feel good knowing their babies are well cared for and close by if needed. 

Students can’t learn on an empty stomach, so breakfast is provided.  Over toast and hot drinks, the happy chatter moves seamlessly between teen talk and that of proud parents. Someone’s phone doesn’t have an earphone jack, a dinosaur-themed first birthday was stressful but fun, and one girl admires another’s new sneakers. One exhausted mama was up three times in the night. When she yawns her T-shirt rides up, revealing a stomach scarred with stretch marks, a visual reminder that underneath all the baggy tracksuits and fresh faces are young bodies and lives forever changed.

9.15am: block one and two

There are no bells at Taonga so the girls are ushered into the classroom for a Kahoot quiz on New Zealand trivia before getting stuck into their morning academic work. Because all the girls start at different times of the year and are working at different levels, everyone’s timetable is unique, but they all work towards gaining NCEA.

Two students have their heads buried in assessments, while another quietly works away on a literacy booklet. Te Huia, the “new girl” (three months hapu and not yet showing) completes a diagnostic maths test so the staff can design a numeracy programme for her individualised learning plan; it will take into account her interests, previous schooling and career aspirations. (All student names have been changed for privacy.) 

Teacher Nicky has to wear multiple hats, teaching one student about the determinants of health, helping another read a map for a tourism unit, and explaining grammatical conventions to a girl proofreading an essay. She finds that this one-on-one teaching works well for her students, many of whom were disengaged from education long before they fell pregnant. 

Daniella’s relatively fresh caesarean scar is bothering her, so she reads her book from the comfort of a La-Z-Boy, until she gets a call from the crèche that her baby needs breastfeeding.

 10:50am: break time

The young mums gather in the kitchen for a hot meal, joined by the unit’s pastoral team. The team offers wraparound support like help with accessing WINZ young parent payments, setting up bank accounts, or booking medical appointments, many of which take place on site by mobile medical practitioners.

But today the girls seem most interested in talking to the visiting Plunket nurse. Lexus is keen to wean her 12-month-old after he started biting, and Andrea asks for strategies to tackle her toddler’s aggressive behaviour. They all listen closely, grateful for any help they can get to raise happy and healthy children.

11.20am: block three

The girls continue their academic work and, depending on the day of the week, will study science or maths, home economics or computing. Subjects that require particular materials or expertise like Spanish, art or woodwork are covered up at the main school.

Lexus has an assessment coming up, so she quietly practices the speech she has written on being a teen mum. She talks honestly and emotively about the shock of the positive test, sore breasts, and exhaustion so profound she falls asleep sitting upright. It is a positive reflection on her journey and she delivers it with her head held high. “Having my son at an unexpected stage of my life created a better me. I am incredibly strong, mature and have peace in my life”. 

1pm: lunch

It is up to the girls how they choose to spend their lunch break. This time provides another opportunity to access wraparound support, so Maria, who is desperate to get out of her precarious living situation, is taken to look at rentals. Students can also visit their babies for a feed or cuddle if they wish. 

There are noises about fried chicken, so a large group pops across the road to the shopping centre, welcoming the opportunity for some childfree time and the chance to chill with their mates. Many have lost their old friends who the girls say judged them for “not keeping their legs closed,” and don’t understand their newfound responsibilities, so the connections made here are incredibly important. 

The teachers discuss the upcoming field trip to the careers expo and wonder if they will have enough students to enter the TPU netball tournament later in the year. Like most schools these days, attendance is an ongoing issue, and for the girls here, something as simple as a broken washing machine can act as a barrier to making it to school that day. The support team can help with a visit to the laundromat or other such easy fixes, but a social worker will do a home visit if they think anything more serious is going on. 

1.50pm: block four

The last block of the day is dedicated to the rest of the students’ holistic education. No two days are the same, and there is a revolving cast of visitors who deliver programmes like first aid, child development and customer service, teaching the girls valuable life skills while earning them precious NCEA credits.

Today they have journaling with teacher “Nanny Gail” to reflect on what they have achieved that week and set goals for the future. Frankie writes that she enjoyed learning to make calzones, and Maria celebrates the significant milestone of finishing her NCEA Level Two with exclamation marks and colourful hearts. In their weekly planners, immunisation appointments sit next to reminders to finish a fractions unit. The teachers use this time to check the students are on track with their assessments.

As the girls start packing up their things, the talk turns to their career aspirations. Crystal dreams of becoming a car mechanic and Lexus wants to be a beautician. They know what they need to do to achieve their goals and are grateful to the TPU for supporting them on that journey. Lexus says that without her time at Taonga she would be “so lost”, but for Maria, it has been more than that: “To be honest, I think I would be on the streets”.

3.00pm: home time

The girls rush back to the crèche where they are reunited with their little ones. Daniella’s baby is hungry so she makes up a bottle for the van ride home, and Crystal picks up a food parcel, rummaging through the box to decide what to cook for dinner. After a day of learning, the teenagers effortlessly snap back into mum mode.

Babies are clipped into car seats and, amid a chorus of goodbyes and some vigorous waving from chubby hands, the vans all pull away. Watching them go, Gail calls them “lovable rogues” while Nicky voices her admiration. “Sometimes I’ll think about what I was doing when I was 14 or 15, and I’ll remember that the only expectation on me was to study and do my chores,” she says. “Everything else was taken care of: the roof over my head, the food on the table. These girls are doing all of that for themselves and they are coming to school with their babies to learn. It’s amazing.”

As the staff close up for the night, the last light to be switched off is above a special wall dedicated to celebrating the triumphs of past students. There are press clippings of prime minister’s awards and photos of those who have returned to the unit in a professional capacity as social workers, lactation consultants and early childhood teachers. But the trophy cabinet hints at the less tangible successes. Next to the usual academic and sporting awards, there is a shiny silver cup for “life skills” and a beautiful koru trophy for the annual “parenting award”. These are the treasures that will be passed on for generations to come.


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