When Jesse Viles came to Mountain View School in 1997, she was a girl in trouble.
"I was 14, pregnant and dealing with an abusive baby's father who made life difficult for me," she said. "At first, I didn't want to be here, but I came hoping to find a place to fit in, and I found that this was kind of my family. I found a place where I belonged."
Today, Viles is 22 and the mother of daughter Halie, 7. She's also a college graduate, works full time for the American Red Cross and makes $40,000 a year.
And last Thursday, May 12, she participated in an end-of-the-school-year celebration for Mountain View's pregnant and parenting students. "I applaud you guys for coming to school," she said. "You're here doing what you need to do and being a good role model for your kids."
Through its Project Opportunity program, the school provides child-development and life-planning classes and information for its pregnant and parenting students and, between June and August, 10 of these students will graduate from Mountain View.
"The program helps encourage and facilitate young parents into finishing school," said guidance counselor and program head Sue Houde. "We provide understanding and support."
SOME 400 pregnant and parenting students — including single fathers — have graduated from the school in the nine years it's been open. And, said Houde, "They tend to be the cream of the crop — our top graduates. When they get it together, they really get it together."
Besides their academic classes, the students learn about child development and adult living skills, such as budgeting, along with the rest of the school, from teacher Marilyn Bailey. And through a monthly Lunch and Learn series — with meals provided by the lunch ladies from the Washington Christian Life Centre — they receive information about pediatric and parenting related topics.
"We also refer them to community resources that can help, such as the Early Head Start project, and the Parent Community Connection — a grassroots parenting group in the Reston/Herndon area that helps fill gaps in areas like transportation and scholarships," said Houde.
Proud of her students and their achievements, she said, "I think it's amazing — particularly when you think about how hard it is for a married person to handle a job and a child, let alone a teen-ager without as much support."
Last Thursday, the school library was all decked out in flowers and balloons for the celebration. And New Life Christian Church provided roses for the grads, carnations for the undergrads and layettes containing baby gifts and handmade hats for the pregnant students.
"IT'S AWESOME," said Mountain View Principal Jim Oliver. "Sue Houde and Marilyn Bailey do a great job, and a program like this fills such a need. The students have goals, and this is truly a second chance for each of them to continue their education. We're all part of the Mountain View family, and everybody belongs."
He said the goal is for the participants to have their babies and come back to the school. "There's always room for them," said Oliver. "We do everything we possibly can to keep them in school. It's truly a joint effort, with a whole group of individuals supporting them and making this possible."
Sharing their success stories Thursday were 2000 Mountain View grad Viles and 2002 grad Danielle Nelson. Now the mother of a 3 1/2-year-old son, Brandon, Nelson attended Mountain View for a couple months in her junior year, had her baby and returned.
"When I graduated, he was two months old — and I graduated with a 4.0 [grade-point average] and honors," she said. "Now I'm about to graduate from an apprentice program at Salon Bleu in Tysons Corner and become a hairstylist."
"I am so proud of her — she's done so well," said Danielle's mother, Cindy Nelson of Fairfax. "And she's not just going to do haircutting. These women she's working with are pulling in good money, so she'll be able to support Brandon. She hasn't been on federal assistance for 2 1/2 years."
"MOUNTAIN VIEW gave me so much support," said Danielle. "The teachers were willing to stay after school. And anything I needed, they helped me with — deciding what to do after graduation, always willing to lend a hand."
Viles had her daughter in March 1998, returned to school for a couple weeks in May and resumed her education full time that September. "I couldn't dream of an abortion, and adoption just wasn't an option for me," she explained. "I knew I couldn't go through nine months [of pregnancy] and give her up."
Not that being a mom and a student simultaneously was easy. "I wanted to spend more time with my daughter so, in my senior year, I worked 3-8 a.m. at UPS," said Viles. "I came to school in the morning, washed up in the bathroom, went to classes and napped in my car."
UPS was so impressed with her work that, at age 16, it wanted to make her a supervisor. But she had other plans. She focused on computers at school and, by the end of her last year at Mountain View, she'd been accepted to college and earned $25,000 in scholarships.
LAST TUESDAY, May 10, Viles graduated from GMU with a bachelors in International Relations. Employed by the Red Cross as a youth community coordinator, she markets, distributes and evaluates a disaster-preparedness curriculum for school children.
"I give so much credit to Mountain View for giving me a chance," she said. "They gave me faith — they believed in me. There was a time I wanted to drop out because I lost my babysitter, but they wouldn't let me." Added Houde: "Jesse was an outstanding 'A' student."
So what kept her going, when things got toughest? "Knowing that, if I didn't, my daughter might do the same thing and think, 'Mom left, so it's acceptable,'" replied Viles. "I learned I could do it. And the scholarships helped, too, because they showed that others believed in me, too."
Her advice to others in similar situations is, "Don't believe what everyone else says." And, said Houde, "Surround yourself with people who support you."
"It's tough," said Viles. "But it's not impossible."