This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Had the School District “paid more attention” to 18-year-old Phozeia Shama, maybe she would be graduating from Girls’ High this year with her friends.
Instead, she has been out of school for months, dealing with intense family issues that her school never even asked about.
Shama was a “good A and B student,” but then her grades started to drop. Nobody noticed, she said. “I feel as though if [the school] would have paid more attention, I wouldn’t be on this road right now.”
That road started when Shama and her father got in a fight during her first year at Girls’ High.
“My dad was trying to kill me, so I had to defend myself,” said Shama. “I hit him over the head with a flower pot, and he pressed charges.”
That led to several months in juvenile placement before the charges were dropped. But her career at the special admissions school was derailed. Finding it hard to catch up, she transferred to Kensington Business for sophomore year.
But there she said she fell in with the “wrong crowd.” She cut class and was “kicked out” for a time.
She went back for a few months, but left school again because of her new family responsibilities.
Her father had died, and Shama, then only 15, was left with having to care for her younger siblings, ages 5 and 10, as her mother struggled with alcoholism.
“I basically was like the head of the household. [I] had to leave school so I could go to work and raise money for my little brother and sister,” she said.
Shama said her mother would steal from her, so she put a padlock on her door to keep money and important documents safe. One day, her mother broke down the door and called the police, charging that Shama had assaulted her.
When Shama turned 18, she tried to gain custody of her siblings, but her mother got a restraining order against her. Ultimately, Shama had to leave the house.
Today, she lives with a friend, but she is not in school. Still, Shama participates in the Youth Health Empowerment Project (YHEP), where she receives clothes, food, and other support, including training in health and sexuality peer education.
The staff is also helping her find an attorney to help with her ongoing custody case.
For a while, Shama worked with Planned Parenthood, teaching adolescents in foster care about healthy relationships. She would like to promote more sexuality education in the public schools.
Shama said she hopes to join the Job Corps and study to be a medical assistant so that she can get a full-time job with Planned Parenthood.
But she still wishes she could be in school.
“Even though I dropped out as many times as I did, it’s still a mistake,” she said.
“I look back at it every day and think, wow, if I stayed at Girls’ High, I would have graduated this year. I would have so many more opportunities.”