Note: This column is reprinted with permission from Represent Magazine. Lottman's heartfelt words are particularly timely this week after a Senate committee passed a bill that would for the first time require schools to be involved in stability for foster children.
I can remember clearly the day when I interviewed at The Secondary School of Journalism Academy. This school, if I got accepted, would be my fourth high school in four years.
I was tired because I’d already moved twice the previous year, which meant having to go to two different schools during my junior year. I hoped that maybe I would be accepted into this school because I loved to write.
The principal didn’t make it easy. She looked over my transcripts, and decided that I should be placed in the 11th grade again. My heart sank as tears welled up in my eyes and the walls of my esophagus got tighter, making it impossible for me to swallow. There was no way in the world I was going to repeat 11th grade.
I began to cry right then and there as I pleaded for her not to do that. I told her I’d been in foster care since birth and moved around a lot. I also told her that my medical condition had put me in the hospital and forced me to miss weeks of school several times over the past two years.
The last time I got really sick, I hadn’t received home instruction from the school for almost two months. I don’t think my agency acted quickly enough to get my schoolwork to me, and since I’d recently transferred, the school didn’t know me and hadn’t made much effort to get things going. All of that had messed up my credits.
The principal just listened and finally said, “OK.” Not a sympathetic “OK,” more like an “alright, whatever” OK. I knew she didn’t care for me as a student; I was just going to be another name on the school’s roster. She and her secretary exchanged a few words and then her secretary looked at me and said, “Be here tomorrow at 8.”
The next morning, I got my schedule. First period was gym. I walked into the gym and 60 eyes were on me—30 strangers whose faces all looked alike. My heart began to race as I took the long journey to the gym teacher’s office.
English followed, and, like gym class, all eyes were on me. I gave the teacher my schedule and said that I was new. He asked for my name and it seemed like the whole room got quiet, waiting for my answer. My whole mouth got dry as I whispered, “Akeema.”
The rest of the day was the same. In my other schools they had at least introduced me to the class, but here the teachers just wrote down my name, told me to take a seat and went back to the chalkboard to complete the lesson. They didn’t seem to care at all. I felt mad lonely and lost as my peers stared at me, wondering who I was.
As the weeks went on I felt more and more like an outcast. My junior classes were the only classes I enjoyed because the juniors were friendlier. Even though I only spoke to the same two people all day, I was just glad there was somebody. I hated going to my senior classes because I was alone. They all stared, but never once bothered to try to talk to me.
What I went through is common to a lot of teens in foster care who move around a lot. I decided to ask the other teens in my house if being in foster care has caused them problems in school. They all said yes. One of them wrote me this note:
“I am 16 and I belong in the 11th grade, but I am in the 9th grade with one or two credits. It’s almost the end of the school year and I don’t think I’m going to make it to the next grade by the fall. What do you think I should do?”
Then there’s my brother. He comes home every day shouting, “I’m not going back to school!” and threatening to drop out. He’s 19 and still in high school because his credits also got messed up with all the moving around, and they held him back a year. I guess sometimes dropping out seems like the easier route for him because he doesn’t have a support system to fall back on.
But even though we’re all struggling, we really do push ourselves. There were times where I had to take two classes on Saturday, two night school classes, and a zero (extra) period just to make up classes and receive credits after I’d moved again.
The foster care system should do more to help kids in care graduate. I also think teachers should reach out to new students. When you’re new, you can’t form that student-teacher bond like someone who’s attended the school since their freshman year. If teachers could have one-on-one talks with new students, they could build trust and good relationships.
But I believe the students themselves should play a strong role also. One thing I’ve learned is that I have to be an advocate for myself. My social workers and the other adults in my life haven’t really pushed the school officials, so I’ve started taking initiative by asking more questions at school and asking for help again and again.
It’s good if you already have supportive adults tackling these obstacles with you, but if you don’t, it’s important to let others know what you need. Having even one teacher or other staff member by your side can make a big difference. I wish I’d known that sooner.
Last August, I got the chance to speak on a panel of teens at a conference of lawyers and judges who wanted to know how being in foster care affects success in school.
Another girl on the panel made a big impression on me. She’d missed a lot of school growing up, too, but despite her trials and tribulations she made it into Yale University.
Her story really inspired me because she broke that stereotype that youth in care are going to be nothing but failures. I think stories like hers will begin to change people’s attitudes. I hope that the lawyers, judges, and social workers at the conference learned that all of us on the panel are strong and motivated, and that we’re fighters. None of us had given up.
Three weeks after I spoke on that panel, I received my diploma. I didn’t walk down the aisle with the rest of my classmates, but it was still the best day of my life. I had pushed myself into graduating and believing that I could because I knew that no one else was going to do it for me. I didn’t want the easy way out.
Now I’m ready to move on and really begin my life. I took the first step by applying and getting into Kingsborough Community College.
I’m excited about starting college, but I also worry that my experiences in high school might be repeated. I’ve heard a lot of people complain about how colleges don’t understand the problems of students in foster care.
But I refuse to let these kinds of problems stop me. I want to further my education and begin my career. This time I’ll be better able to advocate for myself by building relationships with my teachers and classmates and being persistent. This time, I won’t try to do it all alone.