LONG BEACH - When Nohely Zuniga discovered she was pregnant with twin boys at age 15, she thought her education would have to wait.
"I felt so alone," she recalled. "I didn't know if I could finish school. I didn't know where to find help."
While still pregnant, Zuniga enrolled in Cal-Learn, a state program designed to help teen moms finish high school. Today, Zuniga is a 17-year-old senior and straight-A student at Poly High School. She plans to graduate this year and study nursing in the fall.
As part of the Cal-Learn program, Zuniga regularly attends classes on parenting, teen mom support groups and tutoring sessions at the Long Beach location at 711 E. Wardlow Road. Her 16-month-old boys, Anthony and Adiel, frequently tag along.
"The program has been a huge help," she said. "I feel comfortable being here because there are other teen moms who are in my situation and they can understand how I feel."
The Cal-Learn program was launched in 1998 to assist teen parents receiving aid from California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs), the state's welfare program that gives cash and assistance to needy families that qualify. Cal-Learn operates on an annual budget of $8.3 million in Los Angeles County and serves about 3,200 teens in two locations - Long Beach and East Los Angeles.
Statewide, the program serves about 15,000 teens.
In March 2011, the program was suspended for one year as part of a round of state cuts to health and welfare programs.
Cal-Learn Program Manager Gayleah Richmond said the loss would be devastating for local moms who depend on the program for support.
"It's frustrating because the state wants these girls to graduate from high school and succeed in life but then they take away the programs that help them do this," Richmond said. "We've had so many young girls who are successful because of Cal-Learn. We need programs like this because these teens and their babies are our future."
Advocates of Cal-Learn say the program increases the number of teen moms who earn degrees and reduces the repeat birth rate. The high school graduation rate of teens in the program has risen from 73 percent to 86 percent in the past three years, officials have said.
Welfare reform advocates note that California, a state struggling under a $5 billion budget deficit, has by far the largest number of welfare recipients in the country. California has an estimated $1.5 million welfare recipients, or 33 percent of the nation's caseload, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
And while teen pregnancy remains an issue, the state last month released some promising statistics. In 2010, California's teen birth rates hit a record low with a rate of 29 births for every 1,000 females between the ages of 15 and 19, according to the California Department of Public Health. That's less than half of what it was in 1991 when the rate reached an all-time high of 70 births for every 1,000 teens. The rates have shown decline in all major ethnic groups.
Richmond said the push for reform underscores the huge need in low income areas like Long Beach.
While funding for Cal-Learn was suspended, the program was able to stay afloat over the last year thanks to a $2.5 million grant from First 5 LA.
The program is now operating on an annual budget of about $2.1 million and is searching for donations, grants and other alternative funding sources to stay open this year, she said.
With the absence of Cal-Learn, teen moms will be served under the general CalWORKS program. They'll still be eligible for cash bonuses incentives for good grades and finishing school. Participants can earn up to four $100 bonuses for average grades of 2.0 or higher and a one-time $500 bonus for graduating.
Richmond said the general welfare program, however, doesn't include the special one-on-one case management, educational classes and supportive atmosphere provided by Cal-Learn.
"We have case workers that go to the girl's home each month to make sure they're going to school, getting good nutrition and doing well," she said. "A lot of teens get support from us that they wouldn't normally get at home."
She said Cal-Learn offers a variety of services including academic support and GED classes, health, nutrition, prenatal and breastfeeding education, parenting classes, information on life skills and career planning and referrals to other programs.
"A lot of the girls feel comfortable coming here to take GED classes because they can be around other moms like them in a supportive environment," she said.
On a recent weekday in the Long Beach location, about a dozen teen moms, some with babies in tow, filled the center's classroom for a GED tutoring course.
Gladys Monten, along with her infant son, was one of those moms. The 19-year-old said she dropped out of Long Beach's Rosie the Riveter Charter High School when she got pregnant as a sophomore and had trouble going back to school.
Now, with the birth of her second child, Monten said she's determined to get her degree.
"I want to get an education," she said, "because I want a better future for my children."
City News Service contributed to this report.