At 55, a Boise school for young mothers prepares for a rebirth

Thursday’s graduation ceremony for Marian Pritchett High School took a reflective tone, even by commencement standards.

Senior Sonia Aleman looked back on the 2,280 school days leading up to Thursday night, a journey interrupted by motherhood, but not derailed by it. “I am so proud to say I did it. We did it.”

Robert Lloyd, a major with the Salvation Army, hailed a 98-year partnership between the nonprofit and the Boise School District, one that has helped 100,000 young mothers and their children.

With the end of one school year, and with staff cuts looming for next school year, head teacher Deborah Hedden-Nicely took a moment to thank her staff and faculty. “You’ve all helped me grow tremendously as an educator.”

The Salvation Army-Boise district partnership will continue, at a new and larger building. That’s one transition, but there’s another. Enrollment declines — and resulting budget realities — will force a shift to online learning.

‘They don’t give up on us’

Lillian Tovar is headed to the College of Western Idaho this fall. She hopes to become an elementary school teacher.

Before Marian Pritchett, she says she was on her way to dropping out of Capital High School, one of Boise’s traditional high schools.

She started at Marian Pritchett in September, at the start of senior year. She liked the small classes, she felt less self-conscious in school and she appreciated the personalized attention.

“With these teachers, they actually have compassion for us,” she said. “They don’t give up on us.”

Still, she had no time to lose, with a baby on the way. Her daughter Isela was born in January. For Marian Pritchett students, the maternity leave is two weeks, so they don’t fall too far behind. “If they have two months off, there’s just no way,” Hedden-Nicely said.

Five of Marian Pritchett’s six graduates will attend CWI this fall. They won’t go it alone. After students graduate, Hedden-Nicely puts their phone numbers into her cell phone. She wants graduates to call for advice or tutoring — especially during the first-year transition from high school.

“I’m going to take that help,” Tovar said.

A neighborhood refuge

The old Marian Pritchett High School is nestled into a residential neighborhood in Boise’s North End, where trees are plentiful and traffic is sparse. The school sits next to the historic site of the Booth Home, a hospital for unwed mothers, which the Salvation Army opened in 1921.

In the beginning, the isolated location kept the hospital and school out of sight and out of mind. But many of today’s students appreciate the quiet surroundings, Hedden-Nicely said.

While the school has remained in one location for 55 years, it has evolved. It started as a residential school, with dorm space for students and their children, and drew students from across Idaho and neighboring states. For years, the school received a state budget line item. But over time, the Salvation Army couldn’t keep the dorms open. State funding dried up, as lawmakers questioned carving out money for one school in the Boise district.

And now, the school’s location poses its own problems.

Marian Pritchett is an open enrollment school, taking students from Boise and beyond — as long as they can get to the campus. For renters fleeing Boise’s costly housing market for Meridian, Kuna, Nampa or Caldwell, a commute to the North End is challenging. Transit isn’t much of an option, especially for a young mother commuting with an infant.

This year, two-thirds of the students who registered at Marian Pritchett didn’t follow through, Hedden-Nicely said. They simply couldn’t get to the school.

A new location

The soon-to-be-abandoned school site has a new owner, who has proposed a set of condos. The Salvation Army and the Boise district, meanwhile, have big hopes for their new location.

The campus — in West Boise, not far from the Boise Towne Square mall — sits near two bus lines, and closer to Meridian and Nampa, the epicenter of the Treasure Valley’ growth.

The new school has room for 125 students, up from the 50-student capacity at the North End site. The on-site day care will have room for 100 infants and preschoolers.

The school will mix the old and the new. The Salvation Army’s popular campus store will stay; students earn Monopoly money for good attendance or meeting other goals, and redeem their rewards for diapers or other essentials. The school will have new labs for home economics and science and a gymnasium.

Hedden-Nicely uses adjectives such as “dreamy” and “fantastic” to describe the new campus. The offerings make it easier to say goodbye to the North End.

“It’s time to move into something different,” she said.

A new classroom model

Maybe it’s because of a declining teen birth rate. Maybe it’s because of Marian Pritchett’s location. Maybe it’s the result of multiple factors. Regardless, enrollment is dropping, The school served 17 to 20 students this year, down almost half in just two years.

A school that once had a peak faculty of 10 faces more cuts.

Three teachers worked at the school this year. Next year, Hedden-Nicely and paraprofessional Jessye White will share classroom duties.

The school will switch to a hybrid model, with students taking online classes in a classroom.

The district has said it would revisit the hybrid approach if enrollment rebounds. But district officials point out that Boise uses hybrid learning at its other alternative schools. One advantage is that students can choose from a wider variety of online courses.

But three members of Marian Pritchett’s class of 2019 are skeptical.

Will long and self-guided computer sessions work for students facing one given of parenthood: sleep deprivation? Marian Pritchett’s teachers don’t let students slack off, Anika Tam said, but they find ways to engage students and help them work through exhaustion. “They understand how tired you can be.”

Like Tam, Tovar struggled in a virtual setting. She nearly failed an online biology course. She took the same class in person at Marian Pritchett and passed. “I’m better inside the classroom and seeing the books, seeing the work.”

Aleman agreed. “For me, when I’m on a computer, I get distracted and I start thinking about everything else.”

These online learning challenges are not unique. Idaho’s virtual charter high schools perennially struggle with low test scores and low graduation rates.

Like the online charters, Marian Pritchett serves an at-risk student population. But unlike the online charters, Marian Pritchett students will attend a brick-and-mortar school.

While Hedden-Nicely is effusive about the new building that awaits in the fall, she is circumspect when she talks about the hybrid model. She plans to spend the summer studying online learning, and trying to figure out how to make the most of face-to-face time at the school. Part of the answer might be to mix up the day with walk breaks or art breaks.

“It’s brand new to me, too,” said Hedden-Nicely, who has been at the school for 17 years. “This will be a brand-new thing for me as a teacher.”

‘They come in very fragile’

One thing won’t change next year: the challenge of keeping students on track for a diploma, while they face the overwhelming task of parenthood. Marian Pritchett students are no less motivated to graduate, Hedden-Nicely says, but their focus has changed. They’re also thinking about what their baby needs.

The students show up with needs as well. They need a relationship with a teacher or a social worker who can empathize with them.

“They come in very fragile, not knowing whether they can trust us,” Hedden-Nicely said.

On Aleman’s 2,280-day journey to graduation, Marian Pritchett was her sixth high school. She arrived last fall with her daughter Estella, then four weeks old, and she arrived harboring doubts. Aleman was afraid others would jump to conclusions, to “the typical thing that they think of when they think of Marian Pritchett.”

She soon fell in love with the school. Her teachers made allowances for doctor’s appointments and allowed her to feed her daughter during class. She learned things she needed to know as a new parent, from nutrition to budgeting to coping with teething. She quickly became close with her fellow seniors, bonding over shared experiences. “They’re like sisters to me. We know everything about each other, and our kids.”

Aleman talks about her senior year in the context of Estella’s first year of life. When they first arrived at school, Estella slept in a bassinet. Now she’s a 10-month-old, spending her days in the toddler room at the school’s on-site day-care center. Parenthood also shapes Aleman’s career goals. She has a nursing apprenticeship lined up, starting this week. She eventually wants to work in labor and delivery.

‘You won’t knock me down’

Compared to other Boise district graduations — big-box events at Boise State University’s Taco Bell Arena — the Marian Pritchett graduation ceremony is small like a newborn.

Thursday night’s event started about 20 minutes late, after school leaders got word that some of the graduates’ parents were stuck in rush-hour traffic. By the time the ceremony started, more than 100 people had arrived at a large classroom at the district’s Dennis Technical Education Center. Friends and family sat in rows, many carrying flowers or mylar balloons. School staff were on hand. A few Marian Pritchett alums attended as well, to mark the end of one school year and the end of 55 years at the old campus.

In a senior class of six, every graduate gets some spotlight. They appear prominently in a student slideshow that mixes lighthearted senior selfies with photos of mothers and their infants. Each graduate shared a quote with the audience. Hedden-Nicely spoke about the sixth member of the class of 2019, Leleah Bayes, who was home on bedrest Thursday. She is expected to have her baby this week.

As the Marian Pritchett school faces its own transformation, the graduates spoke about a profound transformative event in their life: parenthood.

Hayleigh McDonald took the podium to read one of her poems: “You Can Judge Me.” The theme: people can judge her, or her classmates, for bringing life into the world. “But you won’t knock me down,” she said. “You won’t faze me.”

Aleman addressed part of her speech to Estella. Aleman promised to be “that crazy mom” who screams at graduation ceremonies. And knowing what it took to get to her own graduation day, Aleman is ready to push Estella.

“I can’t wait for my daughter to say, ‘Mom, I don’t want to go to school. I’m tired.’”


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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