Marilyn Serrano has a message for teenage girls who become pregnant and have to drop out of school.

“Don’t give up,” said the Madison teenager who dropped out of East Limestone High School two years ago to take care of her newborn girl, Nevaeh Anabel Cantaneta.

“A lot of girls are getting pregnant in Alabama,” Serrano said. “I want them to know that once they get pregnant, it’s not something that has to stop their life. They don’t have to give up all of their goals.”

Serrano earned her high school diploma in May with help from the Ombudsman program at Limestone County Schools. Her story is featured in the America’s Promise Alliance newsletter and on its website at www.americaspromise.org.

Ombudsman, an America’s Promise partner, works with school districts to provide at-risk students with an alternate route to earn their high school diploma. Most of the students who attend the more than 100 Ombudsman learning centers nationwide are at risk of dropping out because of attendance, credits, academic skills or because their adult responsibilities don’t mesh with the traditional classroom.

“They didn’t push me out at East Limestone,” Serrano recalled. “They were really supportive. I wanted to walk with my class (at commencement ceremonies) because I had known them since middle school. But they said I had missed too many days. My counselor told me about Ombudsman, and it was a good program. A lot of kids can get help and finish high school by going there.”

The program, which the schools implemented last year, is designed to meet students’ specific needs and schedules. In Serrano’s case, she could work around her baby’s needs.

Ombudsman teachers give one-on-one instruction and help students make choices that will make them successful students and productive citizens.
Breaking the news of her pregnancy to her mother was not easy, she said.

“My mother was not supportive at first,” Serrano said. “She was worried about me stopping going to school, but she knew I had to care for the baby. Then she realized she could not change the facts but had to live with it. After that she always wanted me to eat breakfast so I could concentrate on school.”
Serrano also credited her two older sisters — 27-year-old Briseyda Serrano and 25-year-old Anayeli Serrano — with helping her.

“These three women are my role models. They are really strong. I look up to them. I feel like if they are able to do it, then I have to do it.”
Today, at 18, Serrano is in her second semester of classes at Calhoun Community College. She hopes to graduate, transfer to another college and pursue a medical career.

Her relationship with Nevaeh’s father — 20-year-old Horacio Castaneda — has also come around, she said.

“At first, he was really not involved, and it was pretty hard for me,” Serrano said. “He is not a bad guy; he just got scared. Afterward, he started taking more responsibility and helping more. Now he is really a great father — he is a beautiful father.”

They want to try to work it out for the sake of their daughter. The two recently moved in together in Madison. She cares for the baby and takes classes Tuesdays and Thursdays while her mom or one of her sisters watches Nevaeh. Sometimes she works at a restaurant Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Castaneda works Mondays through Sundays at two jobs, she said.

Her life is not easy. Certainly not as easy as it might have been if she had waited to have a baby.

“When she was a baby, I could study while she was sleeping,” Serrano said. “Now she is 2, and she is really bad. She is going all the time — talking and running. It’s more work.”

For those girls who do not have someone in their lives to encourage them, she offers this.

“Sometime you don’t have someone who believes in you,” she said. “When I got pregnant and I was young. I knew I had to push myself to do it (finish school). I knew there was no reason why I couldn’t do it — a lot of girls have done it. I am not book smart, but I know if I don’t try I am going to tell myself the rest of my life I should have tried.”

And then there is always Nevaeh.

“For me, that is why I get up in the morning,” she said of her baby. “That is why I get up and go to school and why I go to work. I want her to have a better life than the one I had, and I want to make her life not complicated.”

Nationally, 85 percent of Ombudsman students graduate, earn credits or return to their district school closer to or at grade level. Since its founding in 1975, Ombudsman has served more than 132,000 students and partners with more than 120 school districts in 18 states.

Assistant principals for Limestone County Schools recently heard Serrano’s success story during an Ombudsman presentation by Phyllis Lucia, according to Limestone County Schools Superintendent Dr. Barry Carroll.

“We would like to thank Debbie Owens and Donna Morris, and many others, who have worked so hard to make this program a success for our students,” he said.

Carroll said he will present information on reducing the dropout rate and increasing the graduation rate, including using the Ombudsman program, at a national conference in February.