When she became a single mother at 17, Fatihah Abdur-Rahman knew the odds were against her.
Nearly 30 years later, she is living her dream as a school principal in a tough Camden neighborhood and sharing her story to inspire students and the community.
It was not an easy road. At 19, she had a second daughter and struggled to take care of her family. Times were hard, and there were days without enough food, electricity, or hot water.
An eviction notice was a wake-up call for Abdur-Rahman. The family ended up homeless, surviving on the kindness of relatives who took them in.
She developed a mantra that spurred her to take charge of her life: “Shake it off, pat it down, and rise a little higher.” Those words continue to inspire her.
”I defined myself,” Abdur-Rahman said. “I am more than a conqueror.”
As principal at Camden’s Forest Hill Elementary School in the city’s Parkside section, Abdur-Rahman uses her life story to encourage students. She openly talks about the obstacles she overcame to push them to excel, despite their challenges in the poor city.
“When we talk about our kids and what they have to overcome, I don’t let them say, ‘I can’t,'” she said. "I’ve been in their shoes. I understand what it takes.”
Abdur-Rahman, 44, grew up in a troubled household in Williamstown, with four siblings. The family worshiped at a masjid on Broadway in Camden. Her mother, Joyce, was hospitalized with schizophrenia and her father, Yusuf, was often absent, she said.
With a leap of faith, she eventually packed up her daughters, Charity and Cheyanna, in 2001 and moved to Huntsville, Ala., where she graduated cum laude from Oakwood University in 2006 with a bachelor’s in elementary education. She returned to Camden and landed a teaching position at Parkside Elementary, and later was selected by her colleagues as Teacher of the Year for five straight years.
“I could tell her passion,“ said former Parkside principal Claudia Cream. “She had tremendous skills.”
Now, Abdur-Rahman is on a mission to improve Forest Hill, where she has been principal since July 2018. She previously was an assistant principal teacher at the city’s Molina Upper Elementary school, the second-worst performing school in the state.
Like many Camden schools, Forest Hill is struggling. Abdur-Rahman has set ambitious goals for student performance and her staff. Most of the nearly 300 pre-K through fifth-graders are economically disadvantaged. They lag in standardized state test scores, with only about 20% proficient in language arts and 13% in math.
Most days, Abdur-Rahman arrives by 6 a.m. She greets students and staff at the front door and blasts announcements on the public-address system. A typical day includes meetings with teacher coaches, random classroom checks to observe learning, and a huddle with school leaders.
“I’ve never seen anyone with as much energy,” Markeeta Nesmith, the district’s director of early childhood, said with a laugh.
When she walks into a classroom, Abdur-Rahman hugs and greets students as “my loves.” The affection is mutual.
“She has a good personality,” said fifth grader Azuree Butler, 11.
Wearing her signature strand of pearls, Abdur-Rahman meets every Friday with her fifth-grade girls and offers “Pearls of Wisdom.” She started the group to work with troubled girls, hear their concerns and boost their self-esteem. They have made vision boards, learned personal grooming, and talked about “how to be a lady.” She recently took the group to a debutante talent show to expose them to positive pursuits.
Her message to them: “You were born to win! So go out and be a winner.”
On a busy afternoon, she donned a heart headband and joined first and second graders in the cafeteria for a Valentine’s Day dance. She led the group in line dances and pulled parents onto the floor.
She has also become a fixture in the community, sharing her story at public events. In the summer, she invites students and parents to story time and hands out books and water ice.
”She has an awesome story of resilience. She’s humble enough to not forget where she came from," said Superintendent Katrina McCombs.
She pushed her own daughters, too, to get an education. Charity Baker, 26, an aspiring teacher, graduated from Rowan University, and Cheyanna Baker, 24, a nurse, from Penn State. Abdur-Rahman holds two master’s degrees and is pursuing an education doctorate in curriculum and instruction.
”She’s not just a teenage mother,” said Charity Baker. “She’s a good woman to look up to.”
Abdur-Rahman hopes to encourage young mothers and began awarding a $500 “Rise Up” scholarship annually to teenage mothers from South Jersey in 2018 who want to pursue a post-secondary education.
”I truly feel like I am called," she said. "This is one more step toward where God wants me to be.”