While many aca­d­e­m­i­cally tal­ented high-​​school stu­dents in Prov­i­dence, Rhode Island, are fig­uring out what outfit to wear to school on a par­tic­ular day, other top grade-​​earners are busily get­ting their chil­dren dressed and off to a babysitter.

School life presents par­enting or preg­nant teens with chal­lenges unknown to most of their peers, and the cost of failure is high—a con­tin­u­a­tion of the cycle of poverty that finds young people entering into low-​​end jobs rather than com­pleting school.

North­eastern asso­ciate pro­fessor Vanessa Johnson is deter­mined to find out whether there are methods for suc­cess that can be copied and com­mu­ni­cated to young people who are caught in this par­enting trap.

Johnson, director of the Col­lege Stu­dent Devel­op­ment and Coun­seling Pro­gram in the Depart­ment of Coun­seling and Applied Psy­chology, is studying a group of 20 stu­dents in Prov­i­dence, all par­enting or preg­nant and all suc­cess­fully matric­u­lating through high school, sev­eral with top grades.

She hopes that by studying these teens on their path to aca­d­emic achieve­ment that she can ulti­mately design a pro­gram to assist other young par­ents through school, opening doors for them to four-​​year col­lege educations.

We want to help par­enting and preg­nant stu­dents gain social cap­ital,” says Johnson, who notes that ending the cycle of poverty is her ulti­mate goal. “We want to help them nav­i­gate through col­lege, and artic­u­late in con­ver­sa­tions with teachers what they want to accomplish.”

For starters, Johnson sees a need for young par­ents to be inte­grated with the larger peer group of high-​​school stu­dents, and into school life. “There is so much learning that goes on in con­ver­sa­tions among peers,” and stu­dents who remain a part of the larger group stand to gain much more than those who, finding them­selves preg­nant, only keep com­pany with other preg­nant or par­enting teens, she says.

As Johnson works to broaden her studies into a much larger cohort, she is also devel­oping the Teen Par­enting Access to Col­lege Ini­tia­tive, which will be designed to help stu­dents bal­ance aca­d­emic and family pres­sures, and may include a summer com­po­nent, work­shops, expo­sure to col­lege and other sup­portive measures.

The goal is to help the stu­dents enroll in col­lege and break that cycle of poverty.

My interest in this hits close to home,” she says. “Teenage preg­nancy was a big part of my family. My sis­ters are all doing well, but, I have one who is just get­ting her col­lege degree at age 48.” Had there been more help for young, preg­nant girls in school, she sus­pects this proud moment would have occurred years ago.

So many teenage par­ents lack a sup­port net­work,” Johnson says. At its worst, the lack of sup­port can cause young­sters to spiral into low-​​paying, menial jobs. “By helping them get into good schools, and by pro­viding a struc­ture of sup­port, their futures could include mean­ingful work” and a better start for their young families.