The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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My IEP Has Me Headed to College
Selena Garcia

There’s never been anything wrong with my intelligence, yet I am in special education. I was embarrassed about that at first, but the supports I get with my Individualized Education Plan (IEP) are helping me get to graduation.

The problems I had in school were emotional, not intellectual. My adoptive parents were abusive. When I was 9, my adoptive mother died, and I was put back into foster care.

One of the only good things about living with my abusive parents was that I got to stay in the same school from kindergarten to 4th grade. However, school wasn’t a refuge—I was bullied for wearing hand-me-downs and glasses and having braces. I was tormented at home and at school.

But I’ve always loved to write, and my favorite subject was English. In 3rd grade, I had a teacher, Ms. Shelly, who was nice and encouraging. She said I was “smart” and “gifted.” Ms. Shelly gave us lots of writing assignments. One of my favorites was to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I wrote a full page about being a singer and dancer, including the songs I would perform, how I would treat my fans, and how it would feel to be famous. Ms. Shelly called my writing descriptive and encouraged me to write more.

I began to like school because of Ms. Shelly. When other kids bothered me she told them to stop. If I was having a bad day she talked to me. She was the only adult who was nice to me, and I felt a little better about myself.

Then, in 5th grade, I went into care. I thought that meant a fresh start, but it was more disappointment and grief. I got placed into homes with parents who talked down to me, hit me, and screamed at me. I often fought with the other foster children in these homes. By age 12, I’d been in over 16 foster homes.

I Didn’t Think

All that moving meant I was transferred from school to school. I never felt like I belonged anywhere. I didn’t get much support or encouragement from anyone in my elementary or middle schools. I still got bullied: I was called a nerd and was usually the new kid.

There were kids I had group work with who said hi and bye in the halls, but they weren’t friends. I watched kids eat lunch in their little cliques from the back of the lunchroom. I was lonely.

I also had a short temper and a lot of bottled-up emotions because of the abuse. If I felt threatened, if someone looked at me “wrong,” I didn’t think. I just started hitting, not caring about the consequences until later.

My psychiatrist told me when I was 11 that I had Impulse Control Disorder. I thought, “Great, I’m already different from everyone else because I don’t have friends and am in foster care. Now I’m even more odd.” I had to take medication that made me feel sleepy and yet also anxious and awkward.

I tried to hide the meds and not take them. I didn’t like the fact that I had to take medication, but I realized that the medicine did help with my anger. I asked them to lower the dosage, and the side effects went away.

Chaos and Danger

At age 14, I finally got a good foster family, the Garcias. That stability eventually helped me calm down and control myself better, but it took a long time. My mom, Jenny Garcia, told me that she believed in me, that I was smart and had a lot of potential, but for a long time I didn’t believe it. My mindset was still “kill or be killed”: I felt like I had to fight whenever I felt overwhelmed or threatened.

The school I went to for 9th grade, after I moved in with the Garcias, didn’t help calm me down. As soon as you walked into the building you could feel the tension. The kids were loud, and security guards stood near every exit and stairway. I didn’t feel safe, and I didn’t care whether I learned anything or even if I passed.

I got into a lot of fights and got suspended several times. Then my foster care agency sent me to school on the psych ward of Bellevue Hospital because they said I needed a more supervised setting with more supports.

I didn’t like the fact that I was in Bellevue. I behaved and attended school every day to get out. It worked—Bellevue transferred me to Manhattan High.

I liked Manhattan High because I made friends there, and I was happy to be out of Bellevue. But it was chaotic and felt dangerous. I didn’t see much learning going on.
Jenny, my foster mom, convinced me to transfer to the High School for Construction Trades, Engineering and Architecture (CTEA). She liked the school because it had good academic ratings, less trouble than my other schools, and was close to our house.

‘What’s an IEP?’

She was right—in CTEA everything was quiet. There were no scanners, and the security guards were only at the front desks instead of roaming the halls. Kids didn’t fight in this school.

At my first school meeting, my mom and I met Mr. Bunting, who was the Special Education Teaching Specialist. He mentioned an IEP, and I asked what that was.

Mr. Bunting explained that an IEP, Individualized Education Plan, gives students extra learning supports. He told me that I was a part of a policy called inclusion, where children with IEPs work in a regular classroom with everyone else. He told me that my IEP included a paraprofessional, a person who would walk me to every class, help me with my work, and would escort me out of the class if I got frustrated or mad. I also got an extra half hour to take tests.

If a teacher saw that I was struggling with the work, the para-professional would bring me down to the resource room. There, I could work in a way that better fit the way I learn, with fewer distractions.

When I heard all this, I was upset because it made me feel dumb. Plus, I didn’t want a paraprofessional escorting me to and from each class. I wanted to walk from class to class with my friends. I didn’t even like getting extra time on tests: I wanted to be like every other child in regular education.

image by YC-Art Dept

Grilling Mr. Bunting

I thought I wouldn’t get along with Mr. Bunting; I grilled him when we first met. But he turned out to be a great mentor, and I liked the rest of my IEP, too. Whenever I missed school, the IEP allowed me time to catch up on my classwork. I took my tests in a more secluded place, where it was easier to focus, and got the extra 30 minutes.

Sometimes I’d have no clue how to solve an algebra problem, and I’d go down to the resource room. Mr. Bunting would say, “This is not that hard. You will get it in less than 15 minutes.” I didn’t believe him at first, but then when he broke it down, I got it.

It was better getting taught like this in the resource room than in the classroom. It was easier for me to focus with no nerve-wracking kids to distract me.

My paraprofessional, Ms. B., was understanding, patient, forgiving, and even fun. I respected her because she understood when something was bothering me or when I was getting upset. And she also knew that I was embarrassed that she walked me from class to class. When I was having a bad day she knew to keep her distance, and as soon as she thought I was ready, she let me walk unescorted.

She helped me with homework and gave me a sheet at the end of the day that listed all my homework assignments.

Weaning From IEP Supports

I felt I belonged in this school now that I wasn’t being bullied. And I was finally living somewhere stable and supportive: Jenny and her husband José had adopted me. The fact that I was happy where I lived made me feel less impulsive, and school life was easier.

Mr. Bunting continued to encourage me and said something I’d never heard: that I should go to college. He said, “You are more than capable of excelling academically.”

At first I couldn’t believe him. For years, whenever anyone complimented me, I’d think, “If I’m such a wonderful child, then why do I go through so many messed-up things?”

Because I was abandoned and hurt at a young age, I couldn’t accept that I was smart or even that I mattered. I envied other people and wished I was someone else. I needed Mr. Bunting’s encouragement because I hated the person I was. I thought I wouldn’t be pretty enough, smart enough, or good enough for anything.

As I gained control of my emotions and learned to focus, Mr. Bunting started to change my IEP, slowly reducing the supports. I want to go to college, and to do that I will need a regular high school diploma, not an IEP diploma. A student who graduates with an IEP diploma must take many remedial classes in college. Sometimes they use up their college money on those. I think by the middle of my junior year I will no longer need as many IEP supports, but I’m glad I’ve had them this far.

Not Fronting

Since I was adopted and started at CTEA, my confidence has grown gradually. In fact, I recently worked up the nerve to defend my IEP to one of the cool, smart girls I want to be like.

I was walking to the gym, and my friend Amanda said, “You’re really smart and you are not socially awkward. So why are you with them?” She meant with the other special ed kids with IEPs.

I said, “Because of my behavior. My mom put me here. I wish I didn’t have to be.”

She laughed, but I was already regretting what I’d said. It was true my behavior got me an IEP, but what I said wasn’t what I truly felt. I was happy that I had an IEP. The extra time on tests and tutoring sessions helped me. Mr. Bunting figured out how to teach me things in a way that helped me get it.

But I just said what I thought would make Amanda like me.

Later on that day, in biology, Amanda said, “Maybe you should try and get out of it. You are too smart for them.”

This time I told the truth. “Just because they don’t have the same learning capabilities as we do doesn’t mean you can single them out like that. And I don’t want to leave special ed yet because it helps me. It makes me feel that I can achieve greatness academically.”

She said, “Well, damn, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” But she seemed to respect that I didn’t care what others thought about me.

At the end of my third semester in CTEA, Mr. Bunting handed me my grades in the resource room with a slanted smile on his face. As I took the report card my heart beat faster; I was afraid to look. In my previous high schools, I got 55s and 65s.

I finally looked, and I got 85 or 90 in all my major classes! I asked Mr. Bunting if he bumped my grades up. He said, “No, those are the grades you earned.”

I felt smart and capable. I started to believe what Jenny and Mr. Bunting had been telling me. The IEP supports were helping me; I did earn those grades. When kids in my class ask me why I am in the resource room or why I have an IEP, I calmly say, “because everyone can use a helping hand.”

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