For students in foster care, a hard-won graduation

    Ten Philadelphia students will walk across the stage today, graduates of the nation’s only charter high school designed to serve children in foster care.

    Some students graduating this year always expected they’d get a high school diploma.

    But for ten Philadelphia students who will walk across the stage today, graduation and higher education were not even on the radar.

    They’re the graduates of the nation’s only charter high school designed specifically to serve children in foster care.

    The ten students graduating from Arise Academy are practicing walking down the aisle at the right pace under the watchful eye of school leader Albert Bichner.

    Mr. Bichner leads graduation practice
    Mr. Bichner leads graduation practice

    “Look at the person in front of you and try to stay in step with that person in front of you,” says Bichner. “Arms by your side, please. Head up. Proud. Smiling.”

    One-by-one the students head to a row of folding chairs. There’s a super studious girl with a big smile next to a couple of kids trying hard to look bored.

    They are just a handful of Arise Academy’s 140 students. Their clothes and hair look like any other teenagers’ but they’ve dealt with personal and academic challenges most teens couldn’t dream of overcoming.

    In the past, as students have changed foster homes, they’ve often changed schools. Not so at Arise Academy. Students can continue to go to school here even if they move.

    One of the students sitting quietly at graduation rehearsal is Triheed Walker.

    “[I’m] Very nervous and excited,” says Walker. “I can’t wait. A lot of attention’s going to be on me because I’m the only boy.”

    Triheed Walker
    Triheed Walker

    Walker’s tattoos provide a glimpse into his life.  The words “live, life” are inked on his arms near a symbol he says means “one of a kind” in Chinese.  He has a tattoo with his mother’s name and one with his grandmother’s.

    “I have my grandma’s name, Leola Ramsey,” says Walker. “She died and I got her tatted.  That was somebody that was real close to me. Right after that, like when she died, that’s when my mom started doing even worse.”

    Walker’s plans to study business and go to Community College were far from obvious just a few years ago.

    “Ever since I was little, I’ve been in and out of shelters and in and out of schools,” says Walker, “truancy and all that. And that was another reason my grades were so bad – because I barely was in school because we kept moving from place to place. It was hard. I had to play an older role. Like I had to take care of my younger brothers and sisters cause even though we was still in the shelter my mom would go out and run the streets and do her little drug problems or whatever she had.”

    Walker’s life is a lot better now. He’s been living with a foster mother for two years and he says classes at Arise are more interesting and teachers care about whether students do well.

    Walker has only been to one other high school, but that’s not the case for all his fellow students.

    At the ribbon cutting ceremony in the fall, the school’s board president, Jill Welsh Davis, asked the students how many schools they’d been to. When she got to six, kids still had their hands up.

    Davis says, at Arise, students benefit from the school’s small classes, supportive staff, and their willingness to work with students to fill in the gaps in their education.

    But she says there is one constant challenge.

    “You may or may not have a willing caregiver at home to work with,” says Davis. “And you also have a system that mandates that certain people are legally responsible. And, although they may be legally responsible, they may not be emotionally attached to that young person.”

    Class valedictorian Dianne Pough says there’s a lot about foster care life that can get in the way of school.

    “When you’re in foster care, there’s just so much stuff on your mind,” says Pough. “You may have went through some abuse. You may not get along with kids in your school. You may be angry more. It’s a lot harder to do stuff or to focus or to just function in class.”

    As far as foster kids go, Pough is doing pretty well: she’s bright, outgoing, and has plans to become a nurse. But she says her brother struggled in the past and Arise has made a big difference for him.

    “A lot of people think it’s like a stereotype that foster kids are bad, crazy, they’re poor,” says Pough. “All these different things that necessarily not true. Here, no one thinks like that. You can’t judge someone, because they’re coming from the same background you came from.”

    Guidance counselor Jackie Moscovici says it’s like having ten of her own children.

    “I do every grant, scholarship, any type of financial aid, all college applications, college admissions, college searches, major searches,” says Moscovici. “So everything that a parent may do, I have to do it in my position. So it’s taking the guidance counselor position and being a guidance counselor, and a parent, and a mentor, and a friend.”

    Moscovici stresses that, just like biological parents, some foster parents are more involved than others. She’s clearly proud all that all of the graduates are going to college.

    “Most kids haven’t always expected to go to college,” says Moscovici “That falls back to what the expectations are for them and the expectations haven’t been very high for them, especially since they are flopping from facility to facility or home to home. There’s no consistency. And, because there’s no consistency, there’s really no one in their lives saying ‘you can do this’ and ‘yes, that can happen in your future.’”

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