ST. LOUIS • Tucked away from the raucous hallways of Vashon High School are four isolated classrooms.
Inside one, an infant boy sleeps. In another, a pair of 1-year-olds color on yellow construction paper. In a different room, four 2-year-olds listen as their teacher reads a story.
"I thank God for this program," said Lawuanna Troupe, a Vashon senior, holding her smiling 1-year-old. "My son is well taken care of here."
Since 1981, the Parent Infant Interaction Program has offered child care and parenting classes to students at Vashon, where 22 students this fall had become parents or were pregnant. Data gathered by St. Louis Public Schools suggest the program has significantly boosted the graduation hopes of students who are parents.
Now, thanks to a windfall of new money, the school district is expanding the concept.
In January, St. Louis Public Schools plans to expand the parenting program to Fresh Start South, a school for dropouts returning to earn their diplomas or GEDs. In March, the district plans to add centers at Roosevelt and Sumner high schools — where dozens of students each year become parents.
The 23,000-student city school system reported 183 pregnant students or teen parents in the district as of October.
"We think it's necessary," said Paula Knight, the school district's associate superintendent over elementary schools.
Knight is aware of the argument that the low-cost and convenient program might make parenting as a high school student seem easy or even desirable. But she said the alternative of doing nothing to support such parents is far worse.
"We would be ostriches with heads in the sand if we let students drop out and fail," she said.
The expansion, budgeted to cost $800,000 a year, is among the package of initiatives Superintendent Kelvin Adams launched this year to keep students engaged in school. It will be funded with proceeds from a landmark desegregation settlement agreement that will also pay for things such as additional preschool classrooms, transportation for magnet schools and the training of principals over three years.
Nationally, the teen pregnancy rate has been falling almost every year since the 1990s. Yet the birth rate among teens in St. Louis is five times higher than for the state of Missouri, and 10 times that of St. Louis County, according to estimates in the 2010 census.
The additional responsibility that babies bring is often why many teen parents never graduate. According to a 2008 survey by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, about one-fourth of all high school dropouts said they quit school because they had become a parent. Often, the problem was lack of child care.
In the 2010-11 school year at the St. Louis Public Schools, 305 students were pregnant or parents, according to district data. Of those, the graduation rate was 91 percent. But of the 15 seniors with children who participated in Vashon's program last year, the graduation rate was 100 percent. Numbers for other years were not available.
"That's the whole purpose," Knight said, 'so that teen parents will stay in school and persevere."
The child care services carry expectations. Parents are to pay based on what they can afford, often $20 to $40 a month. They are expected to meet weekly with a parent educator who teaches basic parenting skills, such as how to handle tantrums and the importance of reading at home.
There are parenting sessions for fathers. The center also provides counseling.
One recent afternoon, six teen mothers brought their lunches into the center, sat around a table and talked with parent educator Chaille Jackson about verbal abuse — the impact that negative words have had on them and could have on their children.
The group went on to talk about hopes for the future. One mother wants to become a lawyer. Another, a journalist. Another, a fashion designer. Another, simply to graduate and make something of herself.
Another said she was told by a cousin recently that her dreams are "too big."
"Your life is not over," Jackson told them. "It may have slowed down. If you have the determination to finish school and go on to college, you can. It's up to you."
Lawuanna Troupe, with the 1-year-old son, listened. About two years ago, she came to the center as a pregnant sophomore and learned about the center's services.
"They've helped me a lot just by answering questions," she said.
Lawuanna is applying to the University of Missouri-Columbia.
She believes she would have graduated even without the benefit of the program, but, "It's made this a lot easier on my family."