Two weeks before the start of her freshman year at Godwin High School, Ahnaka Ortiz-Rodriguez landed in the emergency room with abdominal pain. Her mom was with her while they awaited test results. Ahnaka believed she was experiencing some stomach issues, something she dealt with as a child. When the doctor walked in, Ahnaka and her mom heard the unexpected: “Your daughter’s pregnant.”
Ahnaka cried. Her mom cried. They were scared, worried. As the oldest of three siblings, Ahnaka felt she had disappointed her family. She was a good student with a bright future. She was supposed to be a role model. She texted her boyfriend, Joseph Torres, who thought she was joking. It took her mom calling his mom to convince him it was true.
“I had all these thoughts running through my head: ‘Is my boyfriend going to stay? Is he going to help? Can I do this? Am I going to be able to finish school?’”
For Ahnaka, the answer to all of the above was “yes.” But for many teens, that is not the case. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pregnancy and birth contribute significantly to high school dropout rates among female students, with about 50 percent of teen mothers receiving a high school diploma by age 22, compared to 90 percent for those who do not give birth.
Not only is Ahnaka raising her daughter, but she’s also slated to graduate 34th in her class this May with a 3.4 GPA and a recent induction to the National Honor Society to her name. The journey has not been easy, Ahnaka said. Sleepless nights awake with a teething baby followed by a full day of school is not for the faint of heart. But it has been worth it.
Fitting Trimesters into Semesters
Ahnaka remembers how torn she felt as she prepared to begin high school.
“At first, everyone was disappointed– which is normal. I was 14 when I found out. A 14-year-old who’s just going to school, who hasn’t even had her teenage years yet. I feel like my family thought I would would just throw the baby on them. That’s what happens sometimes (with young moms), I never wanted them to feel like she was their responsibility.”
Some friends suggested adoption, but Ahnaka knew it wasn’t for her. She would figure out a way to raise her baby and, she decided, graduate with her class.
“I created her, I had her. It’s my and her dad’s responsibility. I wanted to give her the best life possible.”
Ahnaka completed her first half of freshman year at Godwin. Then, wary of both the social ramifications of being pregnant at 14 — the looks, the comments — and the thought that she might miss too much school to stay on track for graduation, Ahnaka chose to spend the second semester of her freshman year learning via the online platform MySchool@Kent, offered by Kent ISD.
School counselor Tish Stevenson has known Ahnaka for four years. She said she was impressed with the way Ahnaka and her mother requested a meeting early in her freshman year to hatch a plan for Ahnaka to stay in school. She was unsure, however, if the plan would work.
“Up to that point I had not had good experiences with online learning. Very few kids had the self-control and family support necessary to work independently,” said Stevenson. “I worried because not only would this girl have to work on her own, but it was also her first year in high school and she had plenty of other things to concern herself with.”
But Ahnaka had school staff and her family in her corner. “My mom was a big supporter and so was my grandma.”
On March 4, 2016, Izabella, or “Izzy” as she is called, arrived — 7 pounds, 12 ounces and sporting a head of dark hair. That’s when everything changed.
“As time went by, it was getting more exciting and the sad part was over. When she came, I feel like that’s when everybody wasn’t upset anymore. How can you be upset when you have a gift right here?” said Ahnaka, referring to Izzy.
Ahnaka completed her freshman year through MySchool, impressing her counselor.
“I was delightfully surprised at the fact that she passed all her classes but one. She was able to independently complete her work, mostly unsupervised and at a very difficult, intense time in her young life,” said Stevenson. “I knew right then that Ahnaka was an exceptional individual.”
Ahnaka knew that being in the classroom would motivate her to succeed. She returned to Godwin in the fall, relying on family and friends to watch Izzy for the first few years.
Bringing Up Baby
It didn’t take long for Ahnaka to realize the enormity of the sacrifice she was making.
“At first, after I had her, I was very depressed and a little sad and lonely,” she said. “All my friends are going out, hanging out at the mall, having fun. And I’m inside and I don’t ever leave. It was upsetting at first.”
Looking back, she said, “I wouldn’t change it. I would want to be with my daughter. I spent most of my time with her and that’s time that I can’t get back.”
Once school was under way, the work was relentless. Sometimes, Ahnaka would be awake almost an entire night, especially when Izzy was teething or sick, then she would spend almost eight hours at school followed by time with Izzy, homework and another sleepless night.
Whenever friends would tell her it would probably be OK to stay home after a sleepless night, she disagreed. “I can’t miss school because I am tired. If I do, what will I do when I need to miss classes to take her to the doctor or because she’s sick? That’s not a reason for me. It’s not an excuse. You always have enough time; you just have to manage it wisely.”
Jasmine Gonzalez has been friends with Ahnaka since they were in sixth grade. She said she gives her friend lots of credit for all she does, and is inspired by her ability to juggle everything on her plate. “She makes it look way easy,” said Jasmine.
“No excuses,” is something Ahnaka says often.
Teacher Kelly Gray taught Ahnaka in 10th- and 11th-grade Spanish, and watched her blossom. She showed up consistently, asked good questions, and conquered her fear of public speaking to present in front of the class like a pro, said Gray.
“Ahnaka had a full plate with raising a daughter, who at the time was less than a year old. Sometimes Ahnaka would come to school tired due to lack of sleep,” said Gray. “However, she never used being too busy as an excuse.”
As Izzy grew, Ahnaka became concerned with her daughter’s learning. She says she often feared that Izzy would be behind because she wasn’t with her all day. They’d spend their evenings together singing songs, learning letters, counting stairs. Izzy would see Ahnaka doing homework and would “help” — in the form of scribbles.
“Izzy left you a note,” Ahnaka would tell her teachers when turning in her work.
Ahnaka said it’s those little interactions that mean so much: “Even if it’s not five hours that I could give her – even if it’s just two minutes counting the steps as you go down them – they remember that.”
While learning all she can in school, Ahnaka credits her mother, Danniele Lucchesi, for teaching her how to be a mom. Her support, said Ahnaka, helped make raising Izzy and getting a diploma a reality.
Meeting Deadlines, Heading to the Finish Line
While infants live on their own terms, students do not.
“I’ve never had a teacher who told me that I ‘couldn’t’ – or try to pity me,” said Ahnaka. “I have the same due dates as everybody else. I want to be treated like everyone else. I’m grateful that my teachers treated me equal and pushed me harder.”
As she finishes the last few weeks of high school, Ahnaka is staying focused. She drops Izzy, now 3 and potty-trained, off at her new daycare at 7 a.m., then picks up Joseph, her boyfriend of nearly five years, and they head to school together. In the evenings, Ahnaka works at Chow Hound, where she was recently promoted to supervisor. Again, there’s always the fear of missing out on time with Izzy, but she knows her daughter is in good hands.
“When I leave for work, she’ll wave and say, “Bye mom, I love you!’” said Ahnaka.
Ahnaka plans to enroll in Grand Rapids Community College, a choice she made because it will allow her to live at home with her daughter. She has already earned credits toward college through dual enrollment, and intends to study nursing, a decision influenced by her experience of having many compassionate and supportive nurses when she had Izzy at Spectrum Health.
“Ahnaka’s claim to fame is her consistency and the very high standards she has always adhered to for herself,” said Stevenson, citing her straight-A and A- record for 10th, 11th, and 12th grades. “She is dual-enrolled at GRCC and always, always, always takes care of business. Plenty of others would use early motherhood as an excuse to take it a little easier at school. And rightfully so! But instead, Ahnaka has used motherhood as motivation to excel.”
Ahnaka said her drive to succeed comes from many places — from the people whom she felt she had let down, and who doubted she’d graduate. It comes from the people who were by her side, and encouraged her to succeed. Mostly, it comes from Izzy.
“Going home and seeing her smile motivates me,” said Ahnaka. “I want to do everything I can for her.”
“She does an amazing job of what she does,” said boyfriend Joseph, who is also graduating this year.
Ahnaka is excited to think that when she walks across that stage May 22 and flips the tassel on her mortarboard, Izzy will be there to see it.
“I know she doesn’t have the words to say it, but I know she can feel that I am doing this for her.”