The key to it all, 17-year-old Latifah Long has decided, is confidence.
Latifah said she didn’t have any in middle school, where she had a second home at in-school-suspension, or when she got to high school at Olympic’s International Studies and Global Economics School.
Latifah, now a senior at Olympic, used to think she couldn’t be successful. She and her current principal, Barry Burford, said that in fear of failure, Latifah pushed people away with her attitude. Her grades were poor, and her sights weren’t on college because no one in her family had ever attended.
She was angry because of her home life, she said, and no one reached out to her in support. Then a friend’s mother started bringing her to church in the eighth grade. By her sophomore year of high school, she was encouraged to join the cheerleading team, and that’s when adults and teammates started telling her she needed to change her sour outlook, she said.
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Today Latifah says she loves school, is compelled to help others who lack self-confidence and is thrilled to be the first in her family to be headed toward college.
Burford became visibly emotional when talking about her transformation. “Once she got confidence in herself, she didn’t need the attitude,” he said. “It’s exciting.”
Her Spanish teacher from freshman year, Beth Linkston, said back then, Latifah was a loner and troubled soul in her class. “She’d always do what was asked, but begrudgingly,” she said.
Everything changed for Latifah when, per a friend’s mother’s encouragement, she joined Olympic’s cheerleading team at the end of her sophomore year. Her coach and teammates, she said, would point out how pervasive her negative attitude was.
“I talk down on myself a lot,” she said. “I had to stop thinking negatively about myself. I didn’t have the confidence that I could pass tests.” Her junior year, she made the honor roll for the first time in her life.
This year, Latifah is taking part in America’s Promise Alliance, an organization founded by Colin Powell that is piloting a peer-mediation program in select high schools. At Olympic, she’s on the program’s senior board of about 20 “shepherds,” who help lead students in the right direction.
Mediating isn’t as aggressive as it might sound – it involves shepherds individually reaching out to other students they see having a rough day, listening and giving support.
Burford said he thinks the program has been a main factor in reducing suspensions: Last year’s average was about 800, but this year, the school is on track to cut that by 90 percent.
Approaching her classmates was intimidating at first, Latifah said, but her desire to give others hope always overcame that. “I can relate because that was me at one point,” she said. “I try to relate to them first and then encourage them.”
“She is an amazing leader,” said Linkston, who also heads the school’s America’s Promise program. “She is extremely compassionate to the people that need it.”
And Latifah has embraced her education. She completed enough credits to graduate a year early, but has remained in school to take two Advanced Placement classes, in macroeconomics and psychology.
Linkston said she was amazed earlier this year when she saw Latifah in the school’s office. Latifah was unhappy with a test result, but instead of giving up, was in deep discussion with the secretary and two teachers about better studying strategies.
Once Latifah gained confidence that she could do well in school – and did – she now values her education, she said.
“I love school – it’s crazy I’m saying that. All those snow days (in mid-February) I was mad,” she said, laughing. “I like learning new things.”
But even though Latifah changed her mindset and has succeeded in school, the year hasn’t been without difficulty. She chose to quit cheerleading at the end of December so she could work two jobs – one at a clothing store and the other as a restaurant hostess – to help support her mother and baby brother, and to save for college.
“If I keep cheering, I’m not going to have things I need further in life,” she said.
But she’s never planned to stop reaching out to others. In addition to peer mediation, Latifah has taken on her own “little sister” in her neighborhood. She encourages the 14-year-old, and the two spend time together at the mall, working out and going to basketball games.
Latifah plans to attend Johnson C. Smith University in the fall to study chemistry. She’d like to be a chemist, and envisions starting a nonprofit for children that either helps them out with basic needs, like winter coats, or offers a mentoring service.
“She’s got grit, and she doesn’t give up,” Burford said. “In the end, I think that’s what’s going to make her really successful.”