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November 11, 2018

Cyesis: A ‘Godsend’ for Sarasota’s Most Vulnerable Young Parents

Cyesis, a teen parenting program based out of Riverview High School, has been educating young parents and their children for 40 years. Advocates want the program to do more.

SARASOTA — Dressed in a white nurse’s uniform with a stethoscope draped around her neck, Tera’Nesha Ly’Desha Willis, 18, waited for the school bus at 6:30 a.m. on a recent Tuesday.

Like countless groggy high school students everywhere, she stood in the dark, waiting for her ride. Unlike her peers, she wasn’t carrying just a backpack. Her 2½-year old son Jeremiah waited with her.

When the bus to Riverview High School arrived, the mother-son duo got on together. Willis strapped Jeremiah into a car seat, and the two were off to Cyesis, a specialty program at Riverview High School for teen parents.

Jeremiah would spend the day at Riverview’s Early Head Start Program while Willis took nursing classes at Suncoast Technical College in the morning before heading back to Riverview for her afternoon course load, including parenting courses with other teenage mothers.

Meredith Piazza, a social worker who runs the program, said those programs provide long-term benefits — especially for babies who might otherwise be sitting at home with an overwhelmed young mother.

“We want the best for these babies because we know this is your high-schooler in 14 years,” Piazza said. “People used to say, ‘She’s three months old, she’ll have no idea.’ But research has caught up, and there is this awareness that this is the most important time in their emotional development and their brain development.”

Cyesis is designed for teenagers like Willis a shot to defy the odds, and for 40 years the program has changed the trajectory for some of Sarasota County’s most vulnerable young mothers and their children. However, steadily decreasing enrollment and questions over the school district’s commitment to the program have some advocates worried that Cyesis is not reaching as many girls as it should.

A ‘godsend.’

Roughly half of teen mothers drop out of high school, according to a 2018 study by Child Trends. When Willis found out she was pregnant in her sophomore year, her plans to go to nursing school seemed laughably out of reach, and the thought of walking the halls with her bulging belly was humiliating. The tiny 93-pound sophomore kept her pregnancy hidden for seven months before her grandmother noticed her cheeks looking a little chubby, and soon the secret was out.

“I was feeling like my life was going to be on hold,” she said.

Now, three years later, Willis is on track to graduate high school in May and earn her practical nursing license in August. She is applying to Florida State and Florida A&M’s nursing programs, with her career hopes intact.
Her stepmother credits a vast family support system and the Cyesis program as the reasons Willis is on track for success.

“Her biggest concern was that she couldn’t go to nursing school,” said her stepmother, Kacee Homer. “I said, ‘You can get to the same destination; it’s just a different journey.’”

Homer, 37, described Cyesis as a “godsend.” She said her stepdaughter and Jeremiah both learn from the program — Willis comes home with new insights into parenting and Jeremiah comes home singing songs and knowing his letters.

But several prominent early childhood experts have questioned the district’s commitment to the program. Concentrating a highly vulnerable population on one campus can impact the school’s graduation rates and test scores, and in the era of school grades, advocates wonder if that is affecting the district’s willingness to place girls in the program.

Michelle Kapreilian, CEO of Forty Carrots Family Center, said she wants to know why the number of girls enrolling in the program is on a steady decrease — enrollment has fallen by 73 percent over the last decade, according to school district figures.

“We appreciate that this program is in place, but we have seen some things be chipped away at over the years,” Kapreilian said.

Falling enrollment.

Cyesis first opened at a facility on Beneva Road in 1978. In 2008, administrators were concerned over high per-pupil cost and low test scores. At $23,000 per student, it was the most expensive program in the district at the time, and just 6 percent of 10th-grade students were reading on grade level.

The high cost and low scores motivated district administrators to move the program off of the Beneva Road campus and fold it into Riverview High School. The move sparked fears at the time that the teenage parents would get overlooked, but it also created more opportunities for those students to take advanced classes and participate in extracurricular activities.

In 2009, 86 students were enrolled in the program, and this year there are just 23, according to the school district.

However, Sarasota teens are having significantly fewer babies today than they were a decade ago. In 2009 there were 163 births to teen mothers in Sarasota, according to Florida State data. Last year that number had fallen 61 percent to just 63 births to teen mothers.

And, pregnant teens have more options today than they once did. Students can take classes through Florida Virtual School, and students who drop out can re-enroll through the district’s “Acceleration Academy.”

While increased options and fewer teen parents could be the reason behind the program’s decline, obstetrician Dr. Washington Hill said he has heard from patients who say girls have been denied enrollment in the program.

“It’s not a lot of patients,” Hill said. “But if it is one, it is one too many. Our goal is to make sure that any pregnant patient who wants to go to Cyesis can go to Cyesis. That’s the bottom line.”

Kaprelian and Hill said what they want now are answers. Are students being denied entry into the program? If so, why, and how many have been denied? Kaprelian said she has asked the school district for the number of students who were denied entry into Cyesis but has not gotten an answer.

“If there is data, they are not sharing it with us, so it is hard to know,” she said.

North Port High School has also offered a Cyesis program since 2001, and enrollment there is dropping off as well. There are currently eight teens enrolled, Whealy said, down from 14 students in 2014.

School spokeswoman Kelsey Whealy told the Herald-Tribune that the district did not keep records on how many students were denied entry into the program.

Superintendent Todd Bowden described himself as a “huge fan” of Cyesis, and he is working with administrators to make sure pregnant teens know it is an option. Bowden said the district does not want students to feel like they were forced into the program, and he would prefer they feel invited, so he has met with Riverview administrators to talk about increasing outreach to pregnant teens.

Although the drop in Cyesis’ enrollment has raised concern in Sarasota, Manatee has seen a dramatic decrease in students in its program for teen parents as well.

Manatee school spokesman Mike Barber said the Teen Parent Program held on Harllee Middle School’s campus currently has 47 students enrolled in the program, which is an 87 percent reduction from the 374 students enrolled in 2009. Barber said the decrease could be attributed to decreasing pregnancy rates and increased options for pregnant teens.

Meredith Piazza, the social worker who heads up Cyesis, visits with pregnant teens at other Sarasota schools to make sure they know about the opportunities at Cyesis, and she has partnered with community agencies that work with teenage parents to make sure she is as connected as she can be to potential students. The most common objections, Piazza said, are that students don’t want to leave their home school, or they want to take classes at home via Florida Virtual, an online learning platform students can complete individually.

Piazza said that Florida Virtual is not always the best choice for a pregnant teenager.

“We know that stress and trauma can make it hard to learn. You had a stressful life situation, and now you are sitting in front of your computer with no teacher, nobody saying, ‘I got you, we can do this together,’” Piazza said. “You are isolated.”

A ‘big transition.’

On a recent afternoon, a group of Cyesis students discussed how to handle stress and what to do when a baby won’t stop crying. The girls sat clustered around desks in the parenting classroom at Riverview. Diagrams of the growth of a baby inside a womb hung on the wall, and the scientific drawings took on far greater significance in a class full of young girls who are either pregnant or recently had a child.

Cecilia Huerta, 18, is a senior in the program. She had her son last February and lives with her boyfriend. She said the teachers and peers in Cyesis have been her network of support.

“We can talk to them about anything,” she said.

Riverview Principal Erin Del Castillo said being around other teens going through the same situation is one of the key benefits of Cyesis.

“Motherhood is a very big transition no matter what your age is,” Del Castillo said. “Even mothers who aren’t teens can feel very isolated if their friends aren’t having babies yet. We provide that support group. All those things that you deal with because you are a new mom, you automatically get a chance to have those conversations and connect with somebody else.”

Santos Kicker, 22, graduated from the program in 2014. She got pregnant at 14 and was enrolled in Cyesis for all four years of high school. She said her daughter was born a month premature and that she endured post-partum depression as a high school sophomore. Clinicians from the program visited her at home and surrounded her with support as she finished high school.

Kicker now works at the State’s Attorney’s Office in Bradenton, and she is hoping to enroll in State College of Florida’s paralegal program. She credits Cyesis for her success.

“Without them, I probably wouldn’t be where I am now,” she said.

This story comes from a partnership between the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and the Herald-Tribune, funded by The Patterson Foundation, to cover school readiness, attendance, summer learning, healthy readers and parent engagement. Read more stories at

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