One mom pushed through the odds to graduate this spring.
Odalis Contreras, 18, of Arizona, found out she was pregnant when she was just a sophomore in high school. Her worst fear was not being able to finish her education and becoming another statistic.
According to a report by Child Trends, pregnancy significantly affects the rate of high school dropouts. It found that teen mothers have a lower high school diploma attainment than teens who didn’t experience a young pregnancy. A later report also found that only 53% of women in their 20s who became mothers as teens received a traditional high school degree while 17% took the GED test.
“Education is the most important to me because it has a higher chance of taking me out of poverty than anything else,” Contreras told “Good Morning America.” But beyond herself, she was worried about what not graduating would do to her son, Angel. “If I didn’t finish high school or if I don’t start college and finish it then I feel like he’s going to follow down that path,” Contreras said.
When Angel was born prematurely on Jan. 4, 2019, Contreras missed a month’s worth of schooling and fell behind. To get caught up, she transferred to ASU Prep Digital, an online school founded by Arizona State University, which allowed her to be a full-time student on her own schedule while also taking care of her son.
Even with the ability to make her own hours, it wasn’t easy. Angel would be up all day and sleep at night, which meant Contreras could only do her schooling at night. It worked at first, she said, but eventually led to her never having any time to rest. “I didn’t sleep for the first four months. It was hard,” she said. “It was mentally draining at points because I didn’t know if it was going to be worth it at the end,” she continued, adding that there were many times in her junior and senior years that she wanted to give up.
Despite that, Contreras’ determination to provide her family with a better life motivated her to keep going. “She was adamant about graduating on time,” Karen Sanderson, a learning success coach at ASU Prep Digital, told “GMA.” “I told her I could talk to my supervisor about graduating a little bit later than spring 2021. There’s no shame in that. And she said, ‘No I want to graduate in spring 2021.'” Sanderson acts as a guidance counselor for her students, creating a success plan for their classes and monitoring their progress.
For Contreras in particular, Sanderson put her on a four-by-four schedule where she would do eight classes per semester — four classes per eight weeks — as well as summer classes. “It’s a lot of work,” Sanderson said. “But I stayed on top of her. I talked to her a lot.”
“Ms. Sanderson was always on top of my grades — on top of everything,” Contreras said. “When I wouldn’t log into school for just one day she would text me, ‘Is everything okay? Did anything happen at home? Are you fine?'”
“If they’re struggling, part of my job is to get a plan with them. Talk to them about what’s working, what’s not working, and time management and motivation,” Sanderson said. “Just kind of get them back on track. That’s a huge, huge part of my job.”
From daily check-in texts to babysitting, Contreras’ family also rallied to support her.
“My mom took six months off work to help me take care of Angel,” Contreras said. “It was hard for her but she loves him so much. She would do anything for him.” Even after those six months, Contreras’ mom continued to help with Angel when she could. Beyond keeping him occupied at home, she would also take him outside so that Contreras could focus on her schoolwork in silence.
Though Contreras was grateful for the help, she said the house would then be “too quiet.”
“It’s so weird. When Angel’s not here, the house feels lonely,” she said. The two have a deep attachment to each other, something that made focusing on school even harder for Contreras. “It felt like I was leaving him or abandoning him,” she said, adding that she was heartbroken whenever she had to put her schoolwork before Angel.
ASU Prep Digital held an in-person commencement ceremony in Arizona for its graduating students on May 21. When it was Contreras’ turn to walk across the stage, Angel was right up there with her. “He deserves it too,” Contreras said.
“To actually see her in the flesh, with her tears streaming down and to see how precious Angel was in his little suit with his white tennis suit…I can’t put it into words but it definitely made my career,” Sanderson said of the moment, which was also the first time the two met in person.
In the fall, Contreras will be attending community college, where she plans to complete two years before transferring to Arizona State. While she’s still weighing her options for a future career, Contreras likes the idea of going into real estate as well as being a newborn intensive care unit nurse, as Angel was in the NICU himself. “That’s in my heart,” Contreras said. “That’s something I want to do with my heart.”Her advice to others comes from what’s she’s experienced over the last three years: “Keep going. Whatever you’re doing, you’re doing to better yourself.”