Cassata High School meets personal needs of students struggling in typical high school environments

By Nicki Prevou

Correspondent

Photos by Juan Guajardo

The Cassata Closet, expanded in 2012 with the help of Cassata volunteer Tracy Rector, the Pink Hanger boutique in Colleyville, and diocesan nurse Nancy Eder, is an attractive “shopping space” within the school that provides new school clothing, uniforms, and work attire at no cost for students who would not otherwise be able to purchase these items. Baby supplies such as diapers, formula, toys, and clothing are also available for the children of students; all goods are donated by Cassata supporters.

The Cassata Closet, expanded in 2012 with the help of Cassata volunteer Tracy Rector, the Pink Hanger boutique in Colleyville, and diocesan nurse Nancy Eder, is an attractive “shopping space” within the school that provides new school clothing, uniforms, and work attire at no cost for students who would not otherwise be able to purchase these items. Baby supplies such as diapers, formula, toys, and clothing are also available for the children of students; all goods are donated by Cassata supporters.

It’s the school you might wish you could have attended yourself, with no bullying, no cliques, and no lunchroom drama allowed. Classes are small in size and self-paced, led by cheerful, empathetic teachers who also serve as a protective presence in the parking lot and in the brightly painted hallways.

Or perhaps it’s a community that you wish you could somehow join as an adult, and then are happily surprised to learn that you are, in fact, warmly invited to do so. Visitors to Cassata High School near downtown Fort Worth marvel at the spirit of sincere welcome and nurturing inclusion that emanates from the very walls of the recently renovated 92-year-old building.

“We are always expanding the network, getting the word out to let people know that there is something special happening here at Cassata, and they too, can be a part of it all,” says Jeff Hedglen, incoming chairman of the school’s board of directors. Hedglen, who served as coordinator of youth ministry for St. Bartholomew Church in Southwest Fort Worth for 25 years, has seen “countless” teenagers struggling to be successful in their large high schools, he says, and he values the close-knit Cassata community that successfully prepares students for productive adult lives.

“So many young people, for one reason or another, don’t fit into the typical eight-hour day in a big school, with everything that goes along with that,” he reflects. “At Cassata, it’s exciting to see students blossom and grow because they are given so much personal attention and encouragement, and they gain a sense of being members of a large and very loving family.” When individuals within the larger community witness those profound connections, they, too, want to be a part of the school’s legacy of success, he says.

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As the adult members of that “family,” Cassata’s administrators, staff members, and an ever-expanding number of dedicated volunteers are committed to the school’s mission, which has not changed since its founding in 1975. The private, nonprofit institution, sponsored by the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth, provides a quality secondary education to students who are in need of extra assistance in obtaining a high school degree or a GED. The school serves approximately 230 students ages 13 and older each year.

Lily’s story
“Lily,” whose parents did not complete high school, is a 19-year-old in need of that “extra assistance” that Cassata provides. She, too, dropped out when she became pregnant at age 15.

“After three long years of being out of school, I started to realize how important education really is,” she told guests at a recent Cassata event. “Most important of all is my son,” she added. “I want to be able to provide him with better things and a better future. It is very important to me to be a good role model for him.”

After learning about Cassata’s flexible schedule, Lily enrolled in morning classes at the high school, which allowed her to continue working each afternoon. “Everyone greeted me here as if they already knew me,” she marveled. “I come to school here every morning, and they give me that great energy and the positive attitude that makes me want to keep going every day for a better me.”

Lily’s story is not unusual, says Susan Flood, now in her third year of service as president of the school. “Many of our students face significant barriers to obtaining an education,” she says. “In 2012, 38 percent of our graduates were the first in their families to earn a high school diploma, and 19 percent were teen parents.” Ninety-four percent of those graduates went on to enroll in a college or vocational program or to enter the military, she adds.

Robert’s Story
The stories behind those statistics bear witness to the poignant, very personal victories many Cassata students have experienced in overcoming difficult circumstances. Seventeen-year-old “Robert,” who described himself in a recent essay as “a young African American male who wants bigger and better things in life,” wrote of his struggles to feel successful in his previous school setting.

“My junior year of high school was hard… I was failing three classes and I was struggling and stressing out to the point where I was frustrated, overwhelmed, and later I just shut down.” When school officials suggested that he transfer to Cassata, “I was crushed. I felt like I was superman and let down the whole world… ever since that day I vowed to never fail again in any part of my life, and to make sure that I accomplish more than anyone expects me to. I aim to be the best, even if it means starting over from scratch.”

Three months into his new life at Cassata, things changed, he wrote. “This has been a great experience for me. It just brings such a peaceful atmosphere, nothing like I felt at the other school I attended. There is less drama, less worrying, and less stress. It felt as if for the first time in my high school years, I could finally breathe without any doubt going through my head.”

The teachers are “so kind and helpful,” Robert added. “They actually encourage you to ask for help at any time, without hesitation. The staff here is amazing, and they let you know that they are here for you and they care. Thanks to the help from my teachers, I am passing all of my classes and I am more relaxed than I have ever been. Ever since I came to Cassata, it feels like my confidence is higher than it has ever been.”

The Mentors’ Story
In addition to the cadre of dedicated staff members and teachers, designated mentors — community members who participate in the innovative “Cassata Connections” program, founded by Cassata volunteer Tracy Rector — offer even more support within the school system. Mentors meet regularly with their assigned students as an additional way of offering individualized attention outside of the classroom.

Pam Presswood, wife of current Cassata board chairman Mark Presswood, has mentored 16 year-old “Fabi,” for the past two years. The experience has been rewarding and “really, a lot of fun, because I love working with the kids, and Fabi is such an outstanding person, from a great family, with a great deal of maturity,” says Presswood. “As a professional, I have a strong interest in making sure that young women are exposed to positive experiences within the business community, something more sustained than just a career day.”

The pair recently went into downtown Fort Worth to see West Side Story performed onstage at Bass Hall, reports Presswood. Other adventures include trips to Central Market to introduce Fabi to sushi, an excursion to a food truck park, and information-gathering lunches with other professional women.

“We talk all the time about different career options, and what various jobs would entail,” says Presswood. “I really encourage others to consider participating as a mentor, because Tracy [Rector] has structured things so that every accommodation is made to enable adults to be involved at Cassata. I go to the school to have lunch with Fabi once every other week, and the lunch is provided, so that makes it very easy for me to carve out that time.

“It’s so rewarding,” Presswood concludes. “Being a good mom, and also reaching out to other kids in this way, is something that I want people to remember me for.”

Susan Flood agrees that a life spent in service to the needs of young people is indeed, a meaningful vocation. “It is not easy being a teenager today,” she says, ruefully. “These kids are dealing with so much that’s out there. This is a safe haven, a place where the students know that they can learn without distractions while being treated with kindness and respect. And because they feel so supported, they can go on to reach their full potential.”

For more information about Cassata High School and how to become involved, call (817) 926-1745, or visit www.cassatahs.org.

It’s the school you might wish you could have attended yourself, with no bullying, no cliques, and no lunchroom drama allowed. Classes are small in size and self-paced, led by cheerful, empathetic teachers who also serve as a protective presence in the parking lot and in the brightly painted hallways.

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