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Muckleshoot Teen Graduates As Valedictorian After Growing Up In Foster Care

photo courtesy of Sharon Curley
Erika Ann Ramirez (left) and Kateri Joe, her education specialist from the nonprofit group Treehouse, at her graduation from Muckleshoot Tribal School

Graduating from high school is an accomplishment for everyone who receives a diploma. But some students face bigger hurdles making it to that milestone.

The graduation rate for American Indian and Alaska Native youth in Washington state in the 2016-17 school year was 60 percent compared with 79 percent for all kids.

Kids in foster care have an even lower graduation rate. In the 2014-15 school year, the most recent statistics available, only 43 percent of students living in foster care graduated in four years.

But one young woman from the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe not only beat the odds – she graduated at the top of her class.

On a recent sunny day, Sharon Curley sat on a bench near a skate park on the Muckleshoot Powwow Grounds. Curley showed pictures of her foster daughter, Erika Ann Ramirez, at her graduation.  

“So there’s Erika and all her siblings,” she said. “One of them is missing.”

Erika chimed in quietly: “There’s always one missing.”

She has lots of siblings, but growing up, she hasn’t always been with them. Erika has been in foster care since she was two. When she was about eight, she said she started to understand that the adults taking care of her were not her biological parents.

“At a young age, I was constantly thinking about who my real parents are. Do they even want me? Do they know who I am? Do they even want to get to know who I am? Are they still alive?” she said. “Every day I would say a prayer hoping and praying my mom would get clean so she can get to know me and I can get to know her.”

Erika prefers not to talk much about her birth parents beyond that.

Credit Ashley Gross / KNKX
Sharon Curley (left) is also from the Muckleshoot Tribe and has been Erika Ramirez's foster parent for about 11 years.

Somehow she allowed herself to feel that pain but not let it drag her down. Instead, she set her sights high. She wanted to get straight A's and graduate at the top of her class.

But at Muckleshoot Tribal School, where she graduated from, every student has to give a speech.  When she learned that years ago, she said the prospect was scary to her.

“Right then and there, I had a meltdown in the hallway and I’m like, `I am never going to graduate,’” she said. “If you have to give a speech, I’m not going to walk, I’m not going to walk with my friends. This is not going to happen for me.”

But she pushed through. She took public speaking classes. She participated in a National Indian Health Board conference and made a video telling her own story. In it, she advocated for more treatment centers for pregnant women who are at risk for addiction, describing how she had been removed from her biological mother’s care due to drug and alcohol abuse.

She even traveled to Washington, D.C., and spoke to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Erika has pushed herself. She’s also gotten help along the way. She gets mentoring and encouragement from Kateri Joe, an education specialist with the nonprofit group Treehouse, which gives support to kids in foster care.

Treehouse works with about 7,500 foster youth each year and young people in its program had a five-year graduation rate of 82 percent in 2015 compared with 49 percent for all foster youth in the state.

Joe is Swinomish and Halalt First Nation and said one key to Erika’s success is that she attended a tribal school where her culture is valued and celebrated.

In addition, Joe said Erika has benefited from being in one stable home for many years while other foster kids she works with have gotten bounced around a lot.

“They say around every single new placement, you lose about four to six months of progress educationally,” Joe said. “I’ve had kids just since starting in October that have been placed four times and I’ve had other kids – they’ve had four social workers.”

Erika calls her foster mother, Sharon Curley, Grandma. Curley is also from the Muckleshoot Tribe. She and Erika are distantly related and Curley takes care of four other teens, including Erika’s younger brother. She also raised Erika’s older sisters. Curley tells the kids constantly how important school is. She breaks into a big smile when she talks about Erika.

“You can’t be prouder to stand there and watch her graduate and be valedictorian,” Curley said. “It’s like, `Oh my God, look, Erika, she’s up there giving a speech to all of us.’”

Erika, who wants to go into the fashion industry, designed her own graduation cap. It has her name and 2018 woven in and it’s trimmed with fur.

“I had to be poppin',” she joked. “I’m graduating. I gotta look nice!”

Her path has definitely not been easy or straightforward. But when she’s gone through low points, she said she reminds herself that she’s setting an example for her younger siblings. She had them try on her graduation cap.

“I kept telling them, `You got to get good grades. You have to do this, because when you graduate, you’re going to be valedictorian, okay?” she said.

She said she doesn’t think they even know what a valedictorian is. But Erika’s encouraging them the way others have encouraged her. She’s heading to Central Washington University in the fall.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.