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Until high school, Abenet, 18, was a good student as well as a dedicated runner and volleyball player. She worked hard to live up to the high expectations of her parents, who came to the United States from Eritrea to make a better life for their children.
Then, during Abenet’s freshman year at an Indianapolis high school, her beloved older sister was killed in a car crash. Abenet, too, would have been in that car had she not changed her mind at the last minute and ridden with a friend. She says her parents didn’t know how to handle her sadness at home, insisting that she keep up a strong front. Her grief so overwhelmed her that she couldn’t concentrate in school.
“I was just drifting off in class,” she remembers. “My parents are very strict, and want me to behave in certain ways, but I just felt like I couldn’t keep trying to be someone I wasn’t.”
The once-outgoing girl turned surly and rebellious, taking the bus to school but rarely entering the building. She would take off with friends to go to the mall, watch TV, or get high. She missed more school than she attended. Eventually, she stopped going.
As Abenet’s attendance trailed off, her science teacher noticed the change in her and sent her to meet with the school’s social worker. Abenet refused to tell him what was causing her such difficulty, but he knew she was deeply troubled.
She told him that she might not be able to make it to graduation, since she had fallen behind by a full semester and had no desire to be in school. The social worker told her about New Beginnings, a small Indianapolis alternative school that prides itself on its close relationships between administrators and students.
Abenet enrolled two years ago. Due to get her diploma this spring, she is feeling that her life might finally be getting back on track. She wants to become a social worker so she can help troubled teenagers in the same way the New Beginnings staff has helped her.
“Here they are really focused on us and our needs,” she says. “They help us with problems in school and out of school. They know us.”
Student Portrait by Tom Strickland for Education Week