Foster Kid Named Valedictorian After His Teacher Takes Him In

GULFPORT, FL — While news articles abound about problems with the foster care system, Robert Hurley’s story tells a different tale.

Not only did this foster kid graduate as the valedictorian of his class in May from Boca Ciega High School in Gulfport, Florida, with a 4.66 GPA, but he’s been offered full rides to both Yale and Stanford universities.

And he said he owes it all to a teacher who went far beyond her call of duty as an educator when she made the decision to become his foster mother.

When teacher Amy Krusemark first met Robert Hurley as a freshman in her geometry class at Boca Ciega High School, she described him as “very quiet and withdrawn.”

He had been removed from his mother’s home when he was 9 years old after authorities discovered she’d been dealing drugs.

“My mom was a drug dealer,” Hurley said. “My dad was only around until I was 6 years old, and he was a drug addict.”

He’d been in foster care since.

Since 2014, Hurley had been living in a group home and was worried about the foster agency’s plans to either move him to a new home in rural Hudson or send him to live with distant relatives in Alabama.

The Florida Department of Children and Families tries not to keep foster children in group homes for more than a year. Hurley had well-exceeded that limit.

“The state doesn’t want kids in group homes for long periods of time, so they were going to force me to move somewhere else,” Hurley said. “The only people they could find to take me in were very far from my high school. I didn’t want to start over again for the third or fourth time.”

Krusemark said she didn’t want that for the bright, capable student, either.

“I got an e-mail from an administrator, and in the e-mail, they were asking if I could say something special on behalf of Robert,” Krusemark said. “I learned that he was going to be in the court system, and they were thinking about moving him out of the county, or maybe even out of the state, and he was looking for a teacher that could speak on his behalf.”

So Krusemark made a bold decision. She decided to foster the teen herself.

“I remember standing there and saying, “Well, Robert, what do you think – is it a good idea?” recalled Krusemark.

For the teen whose life had been filled with hurdles and pitfalls, it proved to be a life-altering moment.

“She (Krusemark) saved me, so I didn’t have to start again,” said Hurley.

But, more than that, she offered him the stable family environment, encouragement and support he needed to overcome obstacles.

“Amy really pushed me to my fullest potential,” he said. “She held me to a very high standard. Amy knew my fullest potential was straight As, and if I ever got less than that, she would nag. But I responded well to that.”

He described the experience in his college essay.

“The woman I once knew as just a quirky geometry teacher became like a mother to me,” he wrote. “She taught me how to drive a stick-shift and rode white-knuckled to school each day until I got the hang of it. “

Krusemark had fostered four children previously so the experience wasn’t alien to her. She shares custody of her teen daughter with her ex-husband. That meant Hurley got an instant sister in the deal. Krusemark’s boyfriend, Alex Millman, became his surrogate father.

Hurley describes his junior and senior years with Krusemark as “blissfully stereotypical.”

“We’re really a regular family,” Krusemark said. “Vacations, card games, sibling rivalry — all of it.”

As for her foster son being named class valedictorian, Krusemark said she wasn’t surprised.

“He went beyond expectations,” she said. “He told me early on he wanted to go to an amazing school. I asked him ‘do you know what that takes?’ and every day he just started chiseling away at the goal.”

Hurley said he also owes his success to a number of people who took an interest in him throughout his years in foster care.

Hurley said Gene Goldberg, his first Guardian Ad Litem, was there to help him deal with the death of his big brother, John, six years his senior, who was killed in a 2016 car accident on U.S. 19.

He said he’s also grateful to the Pinellas Education Foundation’s nonprofit Take Stock in Children,a program that helps low-income students succeed in middle and high school with the help of mentors and success coaches.

Hurley met with his Take Stock mentor, Robert Davis, once a week after being placed in the children’s home and enrolling in Azalea Middle School, and that relationship became pivotal in his life.

“He’s my hero,” said Hurley. “He’s a great guy and I always tell him what I’m doing every week. He really cares about me.”

He also credits group home manager Gianna Barrett, who enrolled Hurley in the medical magnet program at Boca Ciega High so he could pursue his dream of becoming a surgeon, and also made him bacon-wrapped meatloaf and banana upside-down cake on his birthdays.

Now, Hurley said he’s looking forward to a new phase of his life.

“I can’t wait to take the world into my own hands,” said Hurley.” “I’ve been dependent on other people my whole life, I can’t wait to be independent.”

At the same time, he said the experience with Krusemark has made him realize the impact a stranger can have on someone’s life.

“Amy has helped me realize how much someone can help another person,” Hurley said. “She really stepped into my life, and she changed it. A lot of people don’t know that one person can make such an impact on another person’s life. I think that Amy has shown me that I can do the same thing for another person.”

Those wishing to help children like Hurley can learn more at the Pinellas Education Foundation’s Take Stock in Children website.

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