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Conceived to help young mothers

Break time at the Unopec High School in Santiago brings cigarettes, chatter - and babies, bouncing on knees, breastfeeding, learning to walk.

Eighty per cent of the 100 students at the month-old school are pregnant teenagers or adolescent mothers. Unopec, the first school of its kind in Latin America, aims to teach them a trade and provide the basics for them to continue their education. Above all, it's designed to keep them studying against some pretty steep odds.

Maria de la Luz Silva, head of women's programmes at the ministry of education, says about 25,000 women under 19 get pregnant every year. Many are students. About 80 per cent drop out. Social pressure - Chile is 80 per cent Roman Catholic and the Church plays a major role in politics and education - is the main reason.

"Many feel like sinners or failures and can't face their own society," Dr Molino, director of Cemera, the University of Chile's adolescent health care centre, and the creator of Unopec, said. "Sometimes parents, feeling betrayed, force their daughters out of school as punishment." Pressure from other parents can also lead to expulsion. "These parents react as if pregnancy were a contagious disease," said Dr Molino.

Today, four years into a campaign by the ministry of education to keep pregnant adolescents in school, about half the schools seem to have complied. Nevertheless, drop-out rates remain high.

Concern for mothers and their babies' health, pushed Cemera toward the idea of a special school. Cemera's research revealed that the children of drop-out mothers are more often ill and more likely to become delinquents. They often repeat their mothers' experience, becoming adolescent parents.

After the success of a 1993 pilot project in a church hall, where the funeral parlour became a day-care centre, Cemera got funding from the United Nations' Development Programme to open a school. The Conchali City Council provided an old building and, Pounds 41,000 later, the school has opened. It has five years to become self-supporting. Tuition is free, but a per-student subsidy from the ministry covers most operating costs.

For 18-year-old Cristina Coronado, Unopec has brought a chance of independence: she's learning industrial sewing so she can earn a living when she graduates. While she bends over her sewing machine, a faded canvas runner gently nudging the foot pedal, her 10-month-old daughter, Cecilia, sleeps quietly in the small creche.

Carolina Currill wasn't pregnant, but constant friction forced her to leave home. For her, Unopec is a simply an unusual high school. Gisela Soto, aged 16 and four months pregnant, is learning a trade as she prepares for her new role as a mother.

"I really like this. I'm so close to my daughter, and I'll be able to get a job when I graduate," said 18-year-old Jennifer Pino.

Ministry officials aren't convinced that the school's approach is the best. "We don't want to make it easier for regular schools to expel these students, " Maria de la Luz Silva said. "Nor can we set up a special school for every special group. But this does help those who are already out of the system. "

Cemera estimates that 40 per cent of male students who become fathers drop out. Next year, once the school finds the money for extra washrooms, male students will also be admitted.

The Chilean word for pregnant, embarazada, comes from the same root as embarrassed. In a society where abortion is illegal and about one-third of adolescents are sexually active - 50 per cent in lower income groups - the Unopec High School offers a supportive environment for women who might otherwise remain hiding at home.

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