March 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

To Support Teen Parents, Libraries Build Trust and Unique Programs


The District of Columbia Public Library’s annual STAR Family Festival provides outreach to teenage parents. This event  featured Latin Grammy-nominated children’s performer Andres Salguero. Photo courtesy of DCPL

Patty Reeber preps her 40 full-time children’s librarians with crafting projects, songs, and reading materials that focus on early literacy techniques.

Then the early literacy coordinator for the District of Columbia Public Library sends her staff out to nine of the district’s 15 high schools.

Working specifically with teen parents through its S.T.A.R. program (Sing, Talk and Read), the librarians help the school-aged parents make flannel books of nursery rhymes and plastic shaker eggs, while giving out picture books, such as Ezra Jack Keats’ Peter’s Chair (Harper & Row, 1967) and Spike Lee’s Please Baby, Please (S. & S., 2002) for teens to take home to their children.

Sometimes just a few students come, says Reeber. But the key to the entire program—and what Reeber says is the most important element to its success—is that librarians come back to visit the schools when they say they will.

“The teens need to trust you,” she says. “So if we say we’re going to be there next month, and we’re there next month, that builds trust. And they’re more likely to listen to you.”

An Alternative to Morning Read-Alouds

School and public libraries do well focusing on their core customer groups, whether they are adults, teens, young children, or parents with toddlers. Programming for these different needs can be found, created, and replicated from other branches. But pregnant teens and teen parents don’t fit neatly into any of these groups, so existing programming designs often won’t work for them.

For example, morning read-alouds at a public library hardly fit into a teen parent’s school schedule. Plus, pregnant teens may feel uncomfortable coming to the public library for help or support. In fact, going to the library may be the very last thing on these teens’ list of priorities, who are still trying to keep up with schoolwork and often a job.


Through a partnership program, teen moms and dads from Minnesota’s South Education Center Academy
visited a branch of the Hennepin Country (MN) Library to explore the play and learn spaces at the library.
Photo courtesy of Hennepin County Library

Nearly 275,000 infants were born to women ages 15–19 in 2013—a drop of 10 percent from 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Still, only about 50 percent of teen mothers earn their high school diploma before the age of 22, compared to 90 percent of those who have not given birth, according to the 2010 study, Diploma Attainment Among Teen Mothers.

Teen parents are essentially children and, depending on their age, legally minors, so they still need a great deal of support— all while learning to parent and educate their babies. That’s one reason Hennepin County (MN) Library (HCL) launched its teen parenting outreach program, informally named “Teen Parents,” in the 2012–13 school year.

“Teens who do become pregnant have a higher risk of not completing high school,” says Katherine Debertin, HCL’s youth programs and service manager. “We wanted to connect with the teens [so we could] build a relationship and earn their trust.”

HCL’s program, which Debertin informally calls “Teen Parents,” is run at six local public high schools, by nine librarians, for about an hour each month. With financial help from the Friends of the Hennepin County Library, HCL spends about $6,000 a year on the program, not including an average of eight hours of staff time per month.

About 15 students meet usually once a month, with approximately 100 teen parents participating for the 2015–16 school year, says Debertin.

Field Trips, Car Seats, and Free Books

Students don’t always come to every class — nor do librarians require it. They know that being a young parent, taking care of a baby, and getting to school can be a lot on its own. As any new parent of any age knows, there are days when even getting out of the house can be hard.

But when the teenagers arrive at the library, there are occasional field trips scheduled to other library branches, and new library cards—with overdue fines and blocks removed on existing accounts. Librarians also show teens how to include early literacy techniques in activities they may already be doing with their babies.

“We tell them there are things they’re already doing, like singing every day,” says HCL librarian Lauren Kewley.

In the Little Read Wagon program, run by the San Antonio (TX) Public Library (SAPL), teens are encouraged to talk to their babies—in English as well as a second language, if one is spoken at home. Having their young babies hear two languages may seem confusing for children, teens are told, but in reality is a wonderful gift.

“We tell them it’s not hurting their babies,” says Corinne Sanchez, library services specialist—early childhood for the SAPL, who co-runs Little Read Wagon with Xelena Gonzalez, SAPL early childhood literacy specialist. “They may say I want a ‘fresa’ shake and not a strawberry shake and blur the two languages. But between birth and five years old, every child has the capacity to learn more than one language.”

Besides receiving encouragement, teens who came to parenting workshops at the Sunland-Tujunga Branch of the Los Angeles (CA.) Public Library took home donated car seats. The initiative was funded by a $6,000 grant from the California State Library and the Southern California Library Cooperative and ran from October 2014 through June 2015, says Ruma Gonzales, young adult librarian at the Sunland-Tujunga branch who directed the classes. She wanted to help new and pregnant teens obtain practical items.

About 34 teen moms attended the program at five different branches throughout the San Fernando Valley, where they were also taught how to open bank accounts in a class with Wells Fargo Bank and given $25 to deposit.

“We need to help [teen parents] with their education and encourage them to strive for a better future for them and their children,” says Gonzales. “It’s not easy. Sometimes the boyfriend has left. Sometimes they are struggling. It’s a hard life.”


Photo courtesy of Hennepin County Library

Earning Credit for Their Classes and Effort

Teens don’t get school credit for the parenting classes, notes Lisa Stuart, a librarian with HCL. They’re pressured to finish school as quickly as possible as they’re now parents. This year at one school, HCL has engaged a local published author who will work with teens for three weeks writing, illustrating, and editing a picture book. The program will provide credit.

“Librarians will talk about what to look for (and create) in books that support early literacy,” Debertin described via email. “The English and art teachers will extend the work to fit into their curriculum and issue credits in the respective subjects.”

Of course, teen parenting classes pay off regardless of whether they count toward high school graduation credits. In Washington, DC, Reeber recalls one teen who couldn’t believe the reaction she got when she started sitting down with her baby and reading books she’d brought home from her classes. She was so thrilled with his reaction that she made a video and showed it to the class the next time they met.

“Ideally we hope we’re changing behaviors,” Reeber says. “That they go home, read with their children, talk, and have conversations. That’s our big, pie-in-the-sky goal.”

Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at

Empowering Teens: Fostering the Next Generation of Advocates
Teens want to make a difference and become advocates for the things they care about. Librarians working with young people are in a unique position to help them make an impact on their communities and schools. Ignite your thinking and fuel these efforts at your library through this Library Journal online course—April 24 & May 8.