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Sanchez overcomes mental health, single motherhood to claim high school diploma

Pharos-Tribune - 5/23/2024

May 23—Veronica Sanchez sat quietly in the Logansport Community School Board's audience as her nerves began to grow.

At one point, while waiting for her moment, she leaned over to Greg Grostefon, her principal at The Academy, and whispered, "I think I'm going to be sick."

Sanchez was fine, and as Grostefon completed a presentation on The Academy, he called her to the podium.

"If The Academy had a valedictorian, it would be Veronica," he said proudly.

Sanchez stood in front of the school board and read what will be her graduation speech when The Academy holds its commencement at 6 p.m. Thursday at the McHale Performing Arts Center.

The 17-year-old spoke of pregnancy, single parenthood, mental health and perseverance.

When she finished, Superintendent Michele Starkey rushed to the podium and wrapped the student in her arms.

"It feels like people don't want to speak up, to say what they went through," Sanchez later said. "I knew at one point I couldn't say or speak up about how difficult things were for me. But sooner or later, we have to tell our stories because we need to tell people 'you aren't alone.' You have a voice."

'Go through my hard times'

A few days later and Sanchez sat in Grostefon's office, full of words and smiles. She talked about college and her hope to be a nurse with a focus on treating post-partum depression.

Those possibilities ripened into full-fledged plans thanks to The Academy, Logansport Community School Corporation's alternative to its traditional high school.

The Academy is a place for students who need options other than traditional high school. It's a school for those who need to help support their families, those who are parents or who may have a health issue that infringes on their ability to go to a typical school. It's a school for teens who sometimes need a second chance.

For Sanchez, she saw The Academy as a place where she wouldn't face bullying because she was a pregnant teen.

Her mother, Lorena Sanchez-Acosta, had experienced just that when she became pregnant at the age of 14, and then again at 15. Sanchez worried the same fate awaited her.

She noted a different tone at The Academy when she and her mother met Grostefon. When she told the principal she was pregnant, he greeted the news with a smile and a big booming congratulations.

She knew she had found the right place to attend high school.

Still, it wasn't all easy after that initial meeting.

At the age of 15, Sanchez became a mother, giving birth to her son, Alejandro, on January 30, 2022. What followed was a difficult period of depression and suicidal thoughts.

"When the depression first happened, I held my baby tight because for me it was hard," she said. "I could tell my family knew because they were trying to cheer me up. They were trying to tell me it's OK and I just couldn't. I didn't feel like I had their support in that moment even though I knew all they wanted was to help me."

Sanchez recalled when the depression finally lifted. She went to the kitchen table to thank her parents for their support and the three of them fell into a group hug.

"Now, everything is ok," she said. "I had to go through my hard times to get where I am today."

Sanchez wanted to graduate high school and create a better life for her son.

She was inspired by her mother, who began college one year after her fourth daughter was born. She is now a dental assistant.

"She told me 'you can do it,'" Sanchez said. "My mom is a role model as well because, even though the same thing happened to her, she made the best out of it."

'Everyone is unique'

At The Academy, a teacher's first goal is to build bonds with students and help them get the credits they need to graduate. Next school year, the teachers will be called advocates.

The advocates jobs will not be focused on staying on top of students to complete their homework. It will be more about helping the students resolve the issues keeping them from completing the homework.

At one point, Sanchez found herself in financial difficulty. She wasn't putting in her school hours. Instead, she worked extra shifts so she could have money to support her child. She worried she would get kicked out of The Academy and finally texted her mentor and Logansport Intermediate School teacher, Tracie Wylie, about the situation.

"Instead of telling me I needed to get on my work or things like that, her response was 'hey honey, how are you doing? Are you ok?'" Sanchez recalled. "It wasn't pressuring like how teachers will tell you that you need to start on your assignment, she was more worried about me being OK than (school) work."

Eventually, Wylie visited Sanchez at her job and they were able to talk things over. Sanchez was never in any trouble. She was so far ahead in her coursework that the missed time didn't really matter. But Sanchez's welfare mattered enough at The Academy that personnel took extra steps to reach out to her.

"Whenever I need to talk to someone, you can go to them," she said. "My mentor, my principal: they are not just teachers. They are there to help."

Each weekday, Sanchez would spend three hours completing coursework. She did her lessons online while her parents helped with the baby and her mom commandeered her cell phone so there would be no distractions.

She could decide when she completed her three hours of work. Perhaps she wanted to come home from work and play with her son. Then, she could study from 8-11 p.m.

She would go into the school when she needed to take a test. That's where she made friends.

"I'm kind of social so I got to meet a lot of new people," she said. "One day, I came for the testing and I ended up making 15 new friends."

She told each student that she had a son that day, and instead of judging her and making fun of her, they asked about her son and if they could see pictures.

"That's how I knew it's not just like normal school," Sanchez said. "But here, everyone has something unique to themselves so they don't judge. I heard some of their stories and I didn't judge either because everyone is unique."

The Academy is in the process of expanding over the summer to allow for the enrollment of more students.

Grostefon said he repeatedly hears the perception that The Academy is where "the bad kids go."

That's not the case, he explained.

"The difference is how we treat kids," he said. "I look at it almost as a curated experience for students and all they have to do is be willing to allow us to help them. That's the difference."

As for Sanchez, the nerves were creeping back as she thought of giving her speech again at McHale. While many in the school board audience had tears in their eyes, Sanchez maintained her composure that night. She wasn't sure if that would be the case if she sees her son in the audience Thursday.

"I'm kind of nervous, but I'm going to go up there and I know my family is going to be proud," she said. "I know someday my son will look back on it and think 'Mom did it. She fought for me. She put the bad paths aside to make it better for me.'"

Sanchez hoped her story will inspire other students who may have become young parents. An education is always attainable, she said, and she hoped they would pursue one.

It's what she would have liked to have heard when she was pregnant and scared.

"Things don't always go as planned but we have to keep on living life," she said.

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