Despite obstacles, ‘I have a lot of reasons to be happy’

Every day, Daliliah Wilson spends four hours simply getting to and from school.

Without a car or driver’s license, Wilson, 18, must take two buses and the light rail from her Wheat Ridge home to McLain Community High School in Lakewood, where she is finishing her senior year.

To arrive on time, she leaves her house by 6:15 a.m., two hours before class starts.

For Wilson, who is living on her own, working two jobs and attending school full-time, transportation is one of her biggest challenges. But she is determined to overcome the obstacles in her quest for a high school diploma, the first step toward one day becoming a pediatric nurse.

“It’s something that I take day by day and try to handle the best that I can,” she said. “Because I know that this is just one tough spot, and all the hard work that I’m putting in right now is going to be worth it in the end.”

Wilson is one of approximately 500 students identified as unaccompanied youths by Jefferson County Public Schools for the 2017-18 school year. They differ from the about 3,000 students in the district classified as homeless because they are not living with a legal guardian and are supporting themselves.

Some, like Wilson, have a stable place to live. But some students living on their own also are homeless, couch-surfing among friends and family or living in their cars, school officials say.

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Vaping’s growing popularity spurs action

Depression, anxiety and wanting to fit in are what Olivia Ridl, 17, says drew her to begin vaping when she was a freshman at Chatfield High.

“I wasn’t a popular kid,” she said. “I was eating lunch in my teachers’ classroom or in the library.”

But vaping with her new friends made her feel like she fit in somewhere, and the nicotine buzz allowed her to cope with and numb unwanted feelings.

By her sophomore year at the school in unincorporated south Jefferson County, Ridl said she couldn’t go a day without her vape, using it at school, in class — sometimes going through a pod or two a day.

The discreet products — often marketed by manufacturers as a healthier alternative to cigarettes, one that can help adults quit smoking — have exploded among today’s youths. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment says Colorado is first in the nation for the number of teenagers who use vaporizers or e-cigarettes, calling the trend a public health crisis.

Local public health officials agree that high school students are vaping and using e-cigarettes at alarming rates.

Vaping is the act of inhaling an aerosolized liquid from an electronic device. The devices used to vape go by many different names such as e-cigarettes, e-cigs, smokeless cigarettes, vaporizers, vape pens and JUULs. There is no smoke like a regular, or combustible, cigarette, but there is the addictive chemical nicotine — which is concerning to health officials.

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Preventing dropouts among pregnant, parenting students

During her sophomore year of high school, Leslie Belmontes found out she was pregnant.

Not feeling like she could continue at her traditional high school, Northglenn High, Belmontes transferred to New American School in Thornton for her junior year. She thought the non-traditional school would be a better choice for her to continue her education while she prepared to become a mother.

But after giving birth to her son, Aaron, during winter break, a lack of support from school staff, babysitting needs and additional medical attention for her son, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome and a heart murmur, made Belmontes feel that she couldn’t go to school anymore.

She became part of the 90 percent of pregnant and parenting teens to drop out of school, according to the National Dropout Prevention Center.

The center, a nonprofit based in South Carolina dedicated to increasing graduation rates, also published a self-reported study that said 28 percent of female dropouts cited pregnancy and the health concerns associated with it as the reason for dropping out of school. Another 25 percent cited becoming a mother. Lack of childcare is one of the biggest reasons for this.

But some school districts in the Denver metro area are trying to cut down this percentage by providing resources for pregnant and parenting students to continue their education.