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M onday through Friday, 23 babies open their eyes across the city. Their mothers or fathers clothe them, feed them, then hurry out the door to catch a morning shuttle bus, holding baby and car seat.

And backpack. 

These parents are high school students, taking the bus to the Elizabeth Celotto Child Care Center at Wilbur Cross High. At Celotto, they say goodbye to their babies for the day before getting shuttled to their respective schools in time for first period.

The first few times they hand off their children are the hardest, says Celotto’s director Robin Moore-Evans. “The babies begin to cry and the teens leave with tears in their eyes.” While Mom or Dad advance from arithmetic to algebra, baby goes from liquid food to solid. As their parents start learning their second languages, children begin their first. Daily journaling and photography, delivered at the end of each school day, assure parents their children are happy and report developmental milestones—first steps, first words.

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The program sounds pretty progressive, and indeed it is. Celotto is a relatively young option for New Haven’s teen parents according to Bonnie Bayuk, the center’s president and a member of the original planning committee. Its story began in the early ’90s with some socially conscious Yale Law School students. Working through the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization, which provides legal aid to low- or no-income clients, they encountered teenage mothers in soup kitchens and shelters forced to choose between taking care of their children and attending high school. Following appeals to the powers that be, they secured a former metal workshop space at Wilbur Cross and received public and private grants to renovate it into a child care center.

By 1995, the Celotto Center was in full swing. Today, the center provides free child care for teenage parents (mother or father) enrolled in any New Haven public school with children between 6 weeks and 3 years of age.

During a recent visit, I put on blue shoe covers to keep from tracking dirt into the center, which is required of all visitors. (“We’ve got lots of crawlers,” Bayuk explains.) Gentle music played as babies and tots slept in hushed nap rooms, their own watercolors hanging on the walls. By the entrance to one classroom, a lyric from a song by Carole King begins: “In September, for a while / I will ride a crocodile / Down the chicken soupy Nile.” “Toddler Creed” hangs by another.

The center has capacity for 32 children, with 23 currently enrolled. It can be difficult convincing teen parents to join or, once they have, to stay the course. In winter months especially, Bayuk says, they tend to drop out to find jobs, thinking they’ll be able to continue their education later. But the center works against this impulse, warning about the special challenges of trying to chase a diploma after a lengthy break. “Sometimes it feels like mothering the mothers,” Moore-Evans says. “Many of them may not have had the best upbringing themselves.” The center also offers advice on how to negotiate the healthcare system, and encourages contraception use so that the next baby will be a choice, not a surprise.

Moore-Evans is adamant that what Celotto offers is “child care,” not “babysitting.” Staff “don’t just play with kids all day,” she says. They use what’s called “The Creative Curriculum,” an amalgam of tested teaching methods for this age group. Linguistic development is spurred through book-reading and verbal repetition. Gross and fine motor skills are improved with games that require dexterity. Social-emotional growth is encouraged through positive interactions with other children.

Ever since Moore-Evans joined the center in early 2014, she’s been instituting greater educational training for teachers and is proud of the level of qualification among staff, which holds a mix of bachelor’s and associate degrees.

Tomorrow it’s on to mixed drinks—after-hours, of course, and off-premises. Celotto is throwing “Brighter Futures,” a 20th anniversary fundraiser at Amarante’s Sea Cliff featuring dinner and an open bar. Monica Vidro, a student from one of the center’s first graduating classes and now a clinical social worker at Yale-New Haven Hospital, is set to speak about the center’s role in making her education and career possible.

The funds will help others follow in Vidro’s footsteps, like current high school senior Diamond Short and sophomore Stephanie Barragan. Through her son, Jurel, Short has discovered a love of working with children and wants to become a pediatrician. Barragan has less definite plans but knows she wants to be able to support herself and her daughter, Emeralys, by helping others. She could see herself becoming a nurse.

In the near term, Short and Barragan will continue waking up early, often before dawn, to wait for the Celotto Center’s shuttle. Because, despite rushing into life, they have the will to see it through and do it well, and thanks to Celotto, there’s a way.

Elizabeth Celotto Child Care Center
at Wilbur Cross High School – 181 Mitchell Dr, New Haven (map)
(203) 497-7455 | rmooreevans@parentingstudents.org
www.parentingstudents.org

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik. Photo 2 depicts Diamond Short and son Jurel; photo 3 depicts Stephanie Barragan and daughter Emeralys; and photo 4 depicts, from left, Bonnie Bayuk and Robin Moore-Evans.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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