This article is part of a series of profiles of graduating seniors in Salem high schools. Read the full series here.
With two children to raise and a volatile relationship, finishing high school wasn’t always top of mind for Karen Jimenez Monreal.
She found out she was pregnant at 14, the summer before she entered North Salem High School in 2017. Though her school counselor referred her to the district’s alternative high school program for teen parents, Jimenez said she didn’t feel at home there because most of the young women were juniors and seniors.
“I was just a kid. I was really nervous and I felt like I was gonna get judged just because of how young I was. So I just wanted to be hidden from the world,” she said. She stopped coming to school and gave birth to her daughter in the spring. But then she gave it another shot.
Now 20, Jimenez is graduating from the teen parent program in the Salem-Keizer School District, finishing her high school diploma as her oldest daughter, Evelyn, prepares to enter kindergarten.
Getting her diploma meant attending classes through a high-risk pregnancy, her youngest daughter’s stay in the neonatal intensive care unit and her ex-partner and the father of her children going to jail for physically abusing her.
Carrie Litchfield, a teacher in the teen parent program, said Jimenez’s drive to look out for her family stands out.
“She’s a fierce mom. She is 100% dedicated to her kids,” Litchfield said. “She didn’t shirk her responsibilities at school. She kept doing it. She kept on it when it was hard.”
Jimenez said she wasn’t engaged in school even before getting pregnant. When she learned about the pregnancy, she said the father pressured her to get an abortion, but she couldn’t follow through when she went to a clinic for the procedure.
She returned to classes the fall of her sophomore year in the teen parent program when her daughter was six months old.
School started out well, she said, but she struggled with worsening postpartum depression.
When Covid hit and school moved online in the spring of her junior year, Jimenez stopped attending.
By then, she was 17 and had moved in with Evelyn’s father, who was physically abusing her. Once, he left her with a black eye.
“I was always scared to do online because I always had to turn on my camera. So like, I kind of just let myself go from school because I didn’t want people to know that I was like staying in an abusive relationship,” she said.
He later went to jail for the abuse. Jimenez said the court case dragged on for a year.
By the fall of 2021, she learned she was pregnant with his second child.
“I hated myself at that point … I kept telling myself I can’t believe I’m gonna bring a child into this world where I’m mentally not okay. Like, I’m in a really crappy relationship with this person,” she said.
But ultimately, thinking about her toddler and unborn daughter prompted her to leave for good.
“They both helped me just move on. They keep me strong,” she said. “They just make me realize I can’t ever put myself in a situation like that. Because they come first.”
Her second pregnancy was during her fifth year of high school. Jimenez was high-risk and in and out of the hospital, but came back to classes as soon as she was allowed to.
“I always wanted to be here. I liked being here because like, they took care of me,” she said. With support from the program, which provides childcare on-site, she could take naps to catch up on sleep.
When Evelyn turned three, she aged out of the on-site child care and started attending a district-run preschool program. Jimenez brought Evelyn to school with her, and her daughter took a bus to get to her preschool classes while her mom continued to work on her diploma.
Jimenez wanted to finish high school last year, but her counselor didn’t want to load her up with online and in-person classes while she had a high-risk pregnancy.
“I was kind of devastated, like I was being stubborn… but then things started getting worse and I was just like, okay, like, I have to think about my health and my baby,” she said.
Jimenez was due in April 2022. Her daughter Ellie was born early, in March, and stayed in the neonatal intensive care unit.
That didn’t stop Jimenez from coming to school. She didn’t want Evelyn to miss her preschool classes.
“I didn’t want to take that away from her. So I would come over here, drop her off, and then I would go see my baby,” she said.
Jimenez did summer school and returned in the fall of 2022 with Evelyn continuing preschool and Ellie in child care through the teen parent program. Her final credits were an English class and P.E.
She also pushed the school to resume a day-long symposium focused on domestic violence which had been a regular event before Covid. Jimenez said she wanted other students who might be dealing with abusive relationships to know help was available for them, because she didn’t.
“We had people coming all over the state to come and speak to our whole campus. It was an incredible event. And Karen spearheaded it,” Litchfield said. “It was a thing to behold. She’s a force.”
It was held in the spring.
“I was really excited for it. And the day we did it was the day that I finished all my classes,” she said. “I was really happy with myself.”
Jimenez is now focused on helping Evelyn transition to kindergarten, which she’ll begin in the fall at Highland Elementary School. She plans to look for work once she’s confident her daughter is adjusting well to her new school, and said she’d like to someday work in construction and own her own business.
Graduating as a mom of two has made her realize how strong she is.
“I was broken on the inside. I got my kids where they are now and they’re the most happiest kids ever,” she said. “It just makes me realize that it doesn’t matter how bad of a situation I can be in, I’m still gonna be taking care of my kids no matter what.”
Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.