NEW PORT RICHEY — Nicole Rellias settled into the wooden rocking chair at the front of the Chasco Elementary classroom, kindergarteners at her feet.
"When everybody is sitting," Rellias intoned calmly to the bristling group, "I'll have Cassidy pick out a book."
Cassidy chose Tooth Trouble, about a walrus with a toothache, which Rellias proceeded to read aloud, making sure to hold up the pages after one child complained she couldn't see the pictures. When she finished, the kids clamored for another tale, but Rellias declined.
"Tomorrow. Not today," she said. "We're going to do calendar. Who can tell me, raise your hand, what yesterday was?"
Teacher Kim Middleton watched from the sidelines.
"She's a natural working with young children," Middleton said of 18-year-old Rellias, who graduates from Ridgewood High this year with a Bright Futures scholarship, an early childhood child development associate certification from Marchman Technical, and plans to become a teacher. "She does compare with probably the end of a level two college student."
To think that three short years ago, the thought never crossed Rellias' mind. She was pregnant, the target of stares and giggles at school and anger at home.
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Only after taking parenting lessons and then early childhood courses did she find her calling. And thanks to the strong support of her parents, Ted and Margaret, her longtime boyfriend, Joel, and teachers and friends, she has avoided the pitfalls that often drive teen parents out of school well before graduation.
"When I got pregnant, I thought, 'I am very young and I don't want people to look down on me,' " Rellias said. "I'm not going to give up. I have to keep moving forward."
Her drive and ambition have impressed her counselors and teachers.
"Teenage pregnancy in America is a very serious issue," said Renee Radicella, a registered nurse who teaches parenting skills at Marchman. "Not all students have the motivation to want to get the diploma. They feel the system is going to provide for them and their children. When you see someone come in who sees that they have to do this for themselves and for their child's sake, you can't do enough to help them."
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Life is far from easy for the young mom.
She wakes each morning at 5:30 a.m. to get everything ready for school — backpack, diaper bag and all the rest. By 6:45 a.m. she rouses 2 1/2-year-old Aundreyas, who goes to the preschool attached to Marchman. She dresses him and packs up the car for their 15-minute drive to campus, where they both eat breakfast before classes begin at 7:50 a.m.
When classes end at 1:45 p.m., Rellias picks up Aundreyas and takes him home, where she gets him settled, changes her clothes and heads to work at the Kids at the Point child care center. It's not until 6 p.m. when she really gets to spend any time with her son, who remains at home with her younger sister.
"We play jungle," she said. "He loves animals."
They read stories and eat dinner together. Aundreyas gets a bath, one cartoon (usually Wow Wow Wubbzy), and then it's bedtime for mom and boy.
There's no such thing as spare time for Rellias. She takes her son with her everywhere — even prom dress shopping — as her parents say they won't be babysitting so she can go out and have fun. Aundreyas sees his father, Joel, only on the weekends, though the couple plan to live together in Dunedin once Rellias completes high school.
She refuses to move in earlier, despite Joel's requests, saying she needs to finish high school and get into college first.
"I'm not a normal senior," Rellias said. "I'm a senior with lots of responsibilities. Aundreyas counts on me, so I have to be on top of everything. I think, definitely, having a baby matures you — or should mature you — very fast."
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When she first enrolled in her first early childhood course, Rellias talked to teacher Katie Chefero about dropping out. Chefero persuaded her to stick it out, just for a month, to see how things might work out.
That month made the difference.
After watching Rellias perform in class, "I said, 'This is the class for you,' " Chefero recalled.
Rellias wrote "phenomenal" lesson plans, had "excellent" rapport with the students and clearly was a "natural teacher."
"She had just great ideas where she reached their academic levels, was interesting and made it fun," Chefero said.
Rellias needed to complete 480 contact hours with children to qualify for her CDA certificate. Chefero connected her with Middleton, who quickly grew impressed. And so, too, did the kindergarteners, who seek advice from "Miss Nicole" just as easily as they do from Middleton.
"She already is a good teacher," 6-year-old Julianna Root said.
Rellias looks forward to being the real thing. And she hopes that others who find themselves teen parents set their goals high and don't give in to the pressures that might make them cry in despair.
"There was never a time I said I would quit," she said. "Quitting gets you nowhere."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.