A study by the Center for Promise, in collaboration with the Boston University School of Education, found that on average young people who stop attending high school are much more likely to have experienced multiple “adverse life experiences” (ALE) when they were 14 to 18 years old.
Students in the study who dropped out were found to have experienced twice as many ALEs during adolescence as their peers who remained enrolled in high school.
Furthermore, the report states more than half of students who left experienced five or more adverse events, and students exposed to multiple risk factors face a higher risk of dropping out — rising 19 percent with each experience.
But some, like plants that split rocks to set their roots, persevere nevertheless. Katie is one such student.
A Quest for Freedom
Katie is trying to graduate early from Bartlett High School. A junior, she sees graduation as freedom. Freedom from the foster care system. Freedom to marry her fiancé and spend time with the couple’s 2-month-old daughter.
“I wasn’t expecting, but I found out I was pregnant last summer,” Katie said. “And that gave me more motivation to graduate early — graduate in general — because I kind of want to prove to my daughter when she grows up that, you know, I want her to be proud of me, like ‘You know, even though my mom had me in high school, she still graduated.’”
Katie moved to Alaska from Minnesota at the age of 12. She said she had a tumultuous home life where she bounced back and forth between her parents. Her family is Hmong and fairly traditional, which Katie said meant that many things weren’t spoken about or addressed. While dealing with the realization of her crumbling family structure, Katie became the victim of sexual abuse from a man in her community.
Katie said she knew she needed to leave the situation, one of many times she’d be her own best advocate. With the help of staff at her middle school and the police, Katie got the help she needed.
“I put myself into OCS custody. I signed myself over, and you know, I’m glad that I made that decision because if I didn’t I would be in the same cycle of abuse,” she said.
She was placed in the Alpine Academy, a residential treatment center for adolescent girls ages 12 through 18. The program is part of the North Star Behavioral Health System, giving Katie a chance to heal while continuing her school through home school-type courses.
After two years, she was discharged from the program and placed in a foster home.
At 16, she had her first day of public high school.
That day she met Regina Sather.
“This is like the best counselor I’ve ever had,” Katie said, sitting in Sather’s office. “I’ve never really had any counselor like her.”
Bright-eyed and full of energy, Sather’s personality easily fills the room. She said she’s fueled by the stories, oftentimes untold, of triumph that she sees every day — Bartlett is a building full of survivors.
“Many of our students have hardships and adversities that they have to overcome and there’s two ways to deal with that. You either take that victim stance — that ‘Poor me, it’s just been a tough road’ — and you go down that road,” Sather said. “Or you dig deep and you find that grit and you use those resources, and you tell yourself you can do this, and you find yourself a different way out.”
When Katie stepped in the door that day, Sather said she was there with open arms to help get her where she needed to go.
“No student should ever go through life without earning that diploma and that’s really, really important to me. That diploma and learning the skills to be successful in life as an adult,” she said. “I get so excited when I work with my students. They lift me. I’ll never give up on these young ladies and gentlemen. I never will.”
Sather and Katie set a plan for her to get caught up on math and be on track to graduate.
Flexible Schedules and Little Sleep
In that first year, Katie met the boy who would later become her fiancé. He was a senior and the two soon became inseparable. After he graduated, he planned to join the Marines. Before he left for training, they found out she was pregnant.
When Katie’s pregnancy began to show, she said she could no longer stay with her foster family, who weren’t licensed to house infants or expecting mothers. Her fiance’s mother, Tashaw Pointer, became her guardian. Katie moved in with her last fall. In February, they welcomed Izabela — a name suggested by Pointer to honor her Creole-Panamanian roots — into a large, close-knit, loving family.
Izabela’s great-grandmother watches the infant while Katie goes to school and other family members help out so Katie can study. When Katie expressed her gratitude, Pointer explained they’re part of the family and with that comes a whole lot of love and support.
Her fiancé is stationed in North Carolina. Katie hopes they will soon be able to tie the knot and begin their new lives as a family. The plans are touch and go, since things are up in the air with military housing, but she is ready to move on — away from Alaska.
“There were good times, but there were also times, you know, where I was scared for my life and every time … I go past that spot, I get kind of emotional. Sometimes (I) get flashbacks, so I don’t want to keep pulling myself down if I could just avoid it,” she said.
Katie’s currently taking six classes, which is equivalent to four credits; three is considered full-time. With the flexibility of an increasingly popular Anchorage School District program called iSchool, where students can take online classes to count toward graduation, Katie has been able to make finishing school this year a possibility. The week before graduation, she was unsure if she would have the grades to make it all the way.
She would like to have a year off between high school and college so she can catch up on lost time with her daughter. If she can’t take a gap year, she plans to take online classes until Izabela is older.
Katie doesn’t tell her story often, but she said she wants other teens who are struggling to hear it as a beacon of hope.
“But like everybody says it doesn’t make who you are. It’s part of your life, it happened to you, but it doesn’t make you who you are. It’s what your decisions are.”
Sitting with her daughter in her arms on a warm afternoon, it was clear that her sights will soon be focused on another goal — just being a mom.
Published on KTVA.com on May 9, 2016.
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Read all of Jessica's writing on Muck Rack