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Madison Metropolitan School District

Parenting Students Find Support During Pandemic from SAPAR Community

Monika Alford and her son

April 12, 2021 - 4:11

Niko Link

When the district transitioned to an all-virtual instructional model one year ago, Jessie Loeb, Childbirth and Parenting Educator for MMSD’s School Age Parent Program (SAPAR), wasn’t sure how she would build an online community that was safe, personable and reassuring for the young mothers in her classroom.

While learning online or in-person during the coronavirus pandemic is already challenging for many students, teachers and families; young mothers in the district find this new learning experience especially stressful balancing the lack of personal interaction in virtual learning with the demands of caring for an infant child.

Jessie explains the key to creating a safe space during online learning is to focus on building a caring community and maintaining those personal relationships that are so critical to new and expectant mothers. She believes that educators should be understanding and flexible, recognizing they don’t always know what is going on with a student right before that student logs into Zoom for class.

“It’s very important to be real and human; take a backseat from the pedagogy and welcome a student when they come to class,” said Jessie. “I always stop teaching and say hello. It doesn’t matter if they join the class late. I stop sharing my screen, I stop whatever I’m doing to welcome the student into the space. I pour a lot of love and real social emotional, non-judgmental support into my students -- and that comes first and foremost before anything that I do.”

SAPAR provides a safe and welcoming environment for pregnant and parenting MMSD students. The program is offered to pregnant and expectant mothers for two semesters featuring smaller class sizes and courses on prenatal care, childbirth, parenting skills and various women’s studies topics, combined with the district’s core curriculum in math and literacy.

Since going virtual, SAPAR educators and staff rely on support from community partners each week to join the students online, providing them with local resources to help them through their first years of parenthood.

“When students leave our program, I want them to have resources to turn to if they need them,” said Jessie. “That’s why I’ve invited diverse members from the medical fields, arts, grassroots organizations, housing and employment partners – people from Madison that come to our classroom regularly that students can get to know and go to them directly when they need support outside of SAPAR.”

SAPAR staff have an ongoing partnership with UW Health’s Physical and Occupational Therapy department where current doctoral students work with SAPAR mothers on navigating developmental milestones with their babies in areas including emotional, physical and cognitive development stages.

Dr. Jasmine Zapata, a UW Health Pediatrics Specialist, health educator and author visits the class every month to present her youth empowerment course on self-reflection, resilience, and courage to the high schoolers, while UW Health workers from the Wingra Family Medical Center provide workshops on everything from parenting through trauma and challenging times to family planning topics and baby wellness virtual visits.

New this year, SAPAR welcomed creative artists from Madison’s Overture Center to work with the students to write and record lullaby songs for their child, and both Briar Patch and Common Wealth Development organizations provide housing and post-secondary job employment resources to students.

“Students also participate in the school diaper program where SAPAR social workers deliver diapers to our young parents on a regular basis,” said Jessie. “Baby bottles, car seats, clothing – these young families get all sorts of new items for their child. We are really grateful that the Madison community loves to support us and donate to our SAPAR parents.”

Monika Alford is currently a ninth grader participating in SAPAR. Balancing virtual learning during the pandemic while striving to go to college to become a respiratory therapist; Monika loves the flexibility and support SAPAR provides, the friendships she’s developed with her fellow classmates and the quick responses from her teachers when she has questions about her schoolwork. At the center of everything is her son, Niko, who turns 1 in August. Monika aspires to have a nice home and build a safe and healthy home environment for Niko and her family.

To hear more about Monika’s experience with SAPAR, click on the video below.

- Marlita Bevenue, MMSD Communications: