As Nicole "Nickii" Ledcke puts it, she had "legit reasons" to drop out in the elementary grades.
Her gangbanger father had been murdered when Ledcke was a toddler, and her unemployed mother was perpetually moving the family of seven children one step ahead of creditors.
Nicknamed "Mommy No. 2," Ledcke often spent school days changing her younger siblings' diapers, doing the laundry and scrubbing the house.
Year after year, she missed months of classroom time, school records and interviews show.
Now 18, Ledcke is struggling against long odds to graduate from high school — even as she is searching for a school that will take her 15-year-old brother, who has all but dropped out.
"A lot of kids, as soon as they fail, they give up. But I had the willpower to go on," Ledcke said. "Since I've been in fourth grade I've always loved school. I've been on honors. But my schooling just got messed up."
This fall, Ledcke started her senior year at Young Women's Leadership
on the South Side, Chicago's only all-girls public school, where the dean said she had been an exemplary student.
"When she comes to school, it was truly because of her own doing. It wasn't anyone making her come — she pressed her way here and made it here," said school Director Deniece Fields. "She's had a life, that's for sure."
But in late September, Ledcke learned that she needed to make up two half-credits in speech and algebra, and the frustrated teen stopped attending and took a part-time job as a nanny. Last week she registered to enroll in a new alternative school, and she insists she will find a way to graduate this year.
"I have a million reasons why I could have dropped out at any time — legit reasons," Ledcke said.
Ticking off a list of the seven Chicago public schools she has attended, Ledcke recounts living in shelters and bouncing around the country as her mother moved from Florida to Ohio, always returning to their native
"We've been evicted and had our stuff on the street," Ledcke said. "We never sit in one place too long. Stability was not part of my life."
In her family's 31st Street apartment were piles of black plastic garbage bags stuffed with clothes. The family was about to move again, without a new lease lined up.
"It's like, don't even unpack, we're going to have to go again," said Ledcke's mother, Shannon Zvirblis.
The family in 2010 moved to the southwest suburbs, but Zvirblis could never collect the paperwork required to enroll her children in school. Asked why, Zvirblis said she was nearly nine months pregnant at the time and relying on a borrowed van with soft tires, faulty brakes and lug nuts coming off one wheel.
"That stopped the school thing for a couple of months," Zvirblis said.
Ledcke and three elementary-level siblings spent nearly half the year out of school as a result.
Besides problems finding rent money, Zvirblis said she has been hobbled by depression.
"My mom wouldn't get up until 3 p.m. sometimes," Ledcke said. "I had to hold the house down."
Zvirblis said of Ledcke: "She's my left arm. She does everything for me. Days I couldn't get out of bed, the kids, the breakups, my psychotic behavior, my back and forth all our life. I could go on forever."
Earlier this year, Ledcke witnessed the knife slaying of a 29-year-old cousin outside a Bridgeport bar after a dispute over a love triangle, and she missed school when she testified before the grand jury.
Returning to class the next day, Ledcke felt school authorities had no clue about her family turmoil.
"I am going through stuff, and people half the time think you are bull-crapping about it," she said. "People judge you. They say, 'Oh! It's 10 o'clock: You're here today!'"
She said she would clutch her books and walk by, thinking: "You don't know my life. Let me just be here."
Ledcke knows her future is precarious. "It's like, one fall kind of brings me two steps down," she said. "But I don't give up."