When Tess Eaton first attended St. Gerard Campus, she hated it.
At 16, Eaton dropped out of school and regularly ran away from home. Shortly thereafter, she became pregnant.
“My parents raised me right,” she said. “I just was not a good kid.”
Eaton is from St. Augustine, where St. Gerard Campus is located, and she knew about the school. She decided to enroll in January 2009. The first few months were difficult, she said, because she had to learn to stay settled in one place and obey the rules.
“I did not want to be there,” said Eaton, who’s now 22.
After a couple of months, she changed her mind.
“Looking back, I wouldn’t have changed a thing,” she said. “I loved going there.”
The St. Augustine school is like few others in the region because of its ability to assist young female students.
St. Gerard Campus is an independent private school designed to help pregnant teenagers and unwed mothers at no cost to them. The facility has assisted thousands of women since its founding in 1981 by providing a fully-accredited high school for pregnant teenagers, on-site daycare services, a residency program allowing students and their babies to live on campus while attending school, among others.
The school currently lacks a science lab, but the Meninak Club of Jacksonville recently donated $30,000 to construct one, said Maria Gleason, the school’s grant administrator and pregnancy center director.
Gleason said the now vacant space outside of the main building would become a science lab to enhance the overall education program, but more importantly, it would provide nursing programs to the students.
Construction will begin in January and make a big impact in the school as about 65 percent of students pursue such careers, she said. Generally, 90 percent of the students go to college.
Amberly Kling, 22, could be one of the first students to use the science lab. She enrolled in the school in August when no other school would take her.
“When I’m done here, I’m going to apply for colleges,” she said “I’m going into a nursing program to become an OB-GYN.”
Kling attended high school elsewhere during her first pregnancy but dropped out due to the difficulties of attending school while pregnant. She said she thinks if she had chosen to attend St. Gerard Campus initially, things might have been different.
The school provides a wide range of services to help the girls stay in school.
While in class, students can bring babies up to two months old into the classroom, and students who reside far from school can stay there through its residency program.
Qwantisha Wheeler, 20, is five months pregnant and currently living at the school. She said her godfather used to give classes at St. Gerard, but it was ultimately her decision to attend as her two sisters had before her.
Wheeler said she is grateful for all the opportunities she is given.
Caroline Wolff, the school’s director and founder, said she decided to open the school when she realized that pregnant women in the county didn’t have much resources and opportunities.
“There wasn’t any education for pregnant single moms,” she said. “As they got pregnant they were basically unable to obtain a decent job or move forward with their education.”
Wolff said St. Gerard is currently serving about 25 to 30 students per year in addition to the hundreds of single mothers who use other services like personal and group counseling and adoption as an alternative to abortion.
The school is funded by donations, she said.
All tax-exempt, public charities with annual receipts of more than $100,000 must file a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service each year to be made publicly available and to ensure such nonprofit organizations uphold strictly charitable purposes.
According to St. Gerard’s 2011 Form 990, total grants and other contributions to the school more than doubled from 2007 to 2011, when the total exceeded $900,000.
Together with gross receipts from admissions and other services, the institution had nearly $1 million in total revenue for 2011 but ran a deficit of about $37,000.
Christina Langston, director of community relations at St. Johns County School District, said the school board doesn’t endorse any program other than its own.
Still, she said, St. Gerard Campus represents another viable alternative for parents who request assistance for pregnant teenagers.