Polk County Schools Teen Parent Program Helps New Moms Achieve Their Dreams

Fear, denial, embarrassment and disappointment were all emotions experienced by three local teenage mothers.

“My mom was disappointed,” Amaria Dowdell said. “We were like best friends, but after finding out I was pregnant she didn’t speak to me for three months and we lived in the same house.”

Dynisha Fulgham, 24, was a grade 10 cheerleader at Tenoroc High School when she found out she was pregnant. She felt like an inconvenience to her mother and added an extra burden to her.

“We were already a burden on her because she was a single mother and didn’t make a lot of money, so now that I was putting this extra person on her, it was a lot,” Fulgham said.

Jeyshka Garcia, 18, was a student at Bartow High School when she took a pregnancy test. Garcia initially denied the possibility of being pregnant after continuously vomiting.

“I denied it the whole time,” Garcia said. “It must have been junk food that I ate all the time.”

Amaria Dowdell, left, and Jeyshka Garcia are students in the Teen Parent program in a classroom at Ridge Technical College in Winter Haven.  Garcia takes classes at Traviss Technical College in Lakeland.  ERNST PETERS/ THE BIG BOOK

As each of these young women wondered what was to come in the next chapter of their lives, the Polk County Public Schools Teen Parent Program was a saving grace.

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According to the Polk County School website, the Teen Parent program is designed to meet the needs of pregnant or parenting students and their children. The voluntary program provides participating students with educational and ancillary services to facilitate the completion of their high school education.

“It’s more relaxing, fewer students for an easier environment,” Fulgham said.

Dowdell, 18, realized she needed to balance her playful spirit and now provide for a baby.

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“I didn’t take anything serious then, but when I got pregnant I had to realize it was time to get up on my A game,” Dowdell said.

She was a student at Ridge Community High School but was taking classes at Florida Virtual School during the first fall season of the pandemic.

“My mom thought I was going to drop out, we weren’t talking, I stopped taking online classes, I was failing,” Dowdell said. “I was like, ‘Mom, I know we’re not talking but I want to graduate.'”

Teen Parent Program student Amaria Dowdell washes the hands of her one-year-old son Atreus in Toddler Class 1 at Ridge Technical College in Winter Haven.  ERNST PETERS/ THE BIG BOOK

Garcia thought she was going to be kicked out of her house but her mother, despite her anger and disappointment, came to her aid.

“She was like, ‘I’m going to help you any way I can,'” Garcia said. “My support system is awesome.”

“It was a big help”

In addition to providing services such as parent education and transportation, parents in the program can take their children to school with them. Fulgham attended the Traviss Technical College program.

“It was a huge help because I didn’t have to worry about who was going to babysit my child,” Fulgham said.

“It was convenient for me because I knew we were in the same environment, the same building at all times,” she added.

LaTonnja Key, 54, has been the director of the teen parent program and child care services for Polk County Schools for 15 years. Its goal is to empower parents.

“We’re making them self-contained now, so we don’t have to worry about it later,” Key said.

LaTonnja Key is the Teen Parent Program Director for Polk County Public Schools.  ERNST PETERS/ THE BIG BOOK

Bonnie Gaynair, 62, is a social worker at Traviss and has been involved with the Teen Parent Program since 1994. She loves her job helping young parents.

“I’m a Christian and I believe it’s my way of serving others and helping others,” she said. “It’s a privilege.”

As a social worker, Gaynair can take students to doctor’s appointments or bring them and the child home if the child is sick. She even took in a teenage parent who didn’t have a home.

“I’m here to support them in any way,” Gaynair said.

A better future

The young girls are grateful for the help the program has given them.

“This program made me who I am today,” Dowdell said.

Dowdell now has a one-year-old son named Artreus. She graduated at the end of the month from Ridge Community High School and Ridge Technical College. She will return to Ridge Technical to participate in the Licensed Practical Nursing program.

“I want to be a registered nurse and a traveling nurse,” Dowdell said.

Garcia is the mother of one-year-old Alexander. She will graduate from Bartow High and Traviss. One of her professors was able to get her job as a secretary in a law firm, which she should start immediately afterwards.

“I want to become a lawyer. I’ve always loved the law,” Garcia said.

Times when teachers help students outside of school make Gaynair happy.

“There’s a lot of networking inside. There is a family unit here where they want to connect,” Gaynair said. “The teachers, I think, care about the students.

Fulgham has been a police officer with the Winter Haven Police Department for three years. She is the mother of LaAndre, 8 years old.

“I wanted to have a stable career for him because I didn’t want to change jobs,” Fulgham said.

Dynisha Fulgham, now a police officer for the city of Winter Haven, is a graduate of the Teen Parent program at Traviss Technical College in Lakeland.  ERNST PETERS/ THE BIG BOOK

Fulgham had a looping moment when she received a potentially suicidal call from dispatch during the Christmas holidays. Upon arrival, a teenage mother needed a dedicated support system.

“Once I got to the house I realized who it was because we had been there before. She had a lot to do,” Fulgham said. “I knew straight away she didn’t want to give up, but she needed support.”

Fulgham spoke with the mother for two hours and shared her own story.

“When I left I started crying, I started crying,” Fulgham said. “I remember going through the same thing and wanting to give up.”

Key was also informed of this call since the mother is in his program. She is grateful that Fulgham was the one who answered the call.

“For her to get that calling, to be a teenage mother and go to see a teenage parent, it was God’s divine purpose that she get that calling,” Key added.

“She was still struggling, she came back to school but luckily she ended up with Amaria and she is much better,” added Key. “Amaria really is a leader here.”

To learn more about the Teen Parent Program, visit www.polkschoolsfl.com/teenparent.

Breanna A. Rittman writes stories for The Ledger. Send your feature ideas to [email protected]

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