Grads credit Catholic program and schools with helping them succeed
It took Isabel Vera nine years from the time she dropped out of community college until she returned to school, and help from the Rural Vocation program, part of Catholic Charities Fort Worth’s Northwest Campus, made it possible.
After becoming a mom in high school and working two jobs to support her family, Vera wasn’t sure she could fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher. No one in her immediate or extended family had ever gone to college. With the help of a client navigator from the program, she developed a degree plan and learned about scheduling, study skills, and “the whole college experience.”
On May 1, she graduated magna cum laude from Midwestern State University and will begin teaching second grade in Wichita Falls in August.
Vera said, “I hope to one day help someone as much as my client navigator helped me.”
Rita Gauthier, Director of Client Services for the Northwest Campus of Catholic Charities, said that students’ willingness to work with client navigators is key to the success of the Rural Vocation program.
To qualify for the program, which includes the services of a client navigator/case worker and financial assistance, participants must meet low-income guidelines, be a Texas resident in one of the 28 counties served by Catholic Charities Fort Worth, be willing and able to work, be 18 to 62 years of age, and agree to commit to program goals.
Rural Vocation works with eight community colleges in the region, including several North Central Texas College campuses, and two four-year universities. The program with Midwestern State has been in place for a few years, and a new partner institution is coming on board by fall 2021: University of North Texas in Denton.
Gauthier said the UNT portion of the program will assist undocumented immigrants and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students.
In the last year, Rural Vocation helped 375 students, with a record number of 44 graduates in May. Most of those grads are completing associate degree programs in nursing and soon will be registered nurses, Gauthier said.
In addition to one-on-one help from client navigators, the program features quarterly workshops on such subjects as goal setting, study skills, budgeting, and credit.
Vera said that she still uses the information she learned in budgeting and credit workshops.
Gauthier said that participants often are working part time and have difficulty making ends meet. They learn to budget, save, and pay off high interest credit cards and payday loans.
“We help them understand what credit is and how to use it wisely,” she said.
Vera said meeting with her client navigator helped her learn how to cope with the pressures of school and obstacles of life. When she first returned to school, she was dealing with mental health challenges, and her navigator helped her find counseling and supported her throughout her educational journey.
Now she wants to pass along a love for learning to the next generation.
“A lot of students lack love and don’t get their self-esteem lifted up,” she said. “I want them to know that they can do what they want to do and believe in themselves.”
Celebrating graduation with her 12-year-old daughter Miah and husband Roberto Vera was “a special day,” after all the struggles to get there.
She won’t ever take her education for granted.
“Every time I would walk into MSU and see my reflection in the glass door, I’d think, ‘Wow, I’m so grateful,’” she said.
'A great resource for education'
Xavier Gonzalez wasn’t looking for a traditional high school experience. A large campus with hundreds of students and all-day classes with 30 students in each seemed overwhelming.
After struggling in public school during his early years, Xavier had made a lot of progress in the intimate academic environment at St. George Catholic School. Then-principal Mary Longoria (now on the faculty at Nolan Catholic High School) suggested that Xavier look at Cassata Catholic High School.
“The teachers there were able to work with you one-on-one instead of having a lecture class,” Xavier said. “You could get one-on-one help before or after class, and the teachers make you feel like you have all the time in the world.”
Xavier is one of the first students to attend Cassata all four years of high school, which originally accepted only students 16 or older. Now he’s graduating and plans to go into the United States Air Force.
Established in 1975 by Sister Mary Bonaventure and Sister Mary Fulbright, of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, Cassata opened to help high school dropouts, 16 and older, complete their high school education.
Cassata President Dr. Maggie Harrison said the school still serves those students but now also helps any high school student who is looking for a self-paced program and whose life circumstances make an all-day traditional school a challenge. They have open enrollment, meaning students can start there at any time in the school year.
Cassata offers morning or afternoon sessions for students who work on three classes at a time. Students can complete a minimum diploma plan, the recommended diploma plan, or go beyond high school with dual credit courses offered in partnership with Tarrant County College. The school staff also can help students complete a GED. Tuition is on a sliding scale, based on family income.
Xavier’s mom, Linda Gonzalez, said, “Cassata is a great resource for education that I wish more people knew about.”
Although some people in the diocese think of it as an alternative school for students who are pregnant or who got kicked out of a traditional school, it’s much more than that; it’s an ideal program for many kids who find a traditional high school environment overwhelming, Linda Gonzalez said.
Harrison said, “It’s a reputation that we’re trying to change over the years. We’re not a school for troubled youth. We’re there for students with emotional or physical health challenges, anxiety, depression, medical issues, young parents who need to take care of a baby and can’t be in school all day. We have a very quiet and supportive atmosphere.”
Xavier’s dad, Abel Gonzalez, said that his son really benefited from small classes and individualized learning.
After adopting Xavier at age 12 and moving him soon after that from public school to St. George, they really saw him grow during his years in Catholic schools.
“He wasn’t a lost student,” Abel Gonzalez said. “He was able to really participate. He ran for student council and was able to grow a lot education-wise and socially. And the spiritual aspect of Catholic school is a real benefit.”
Xavier also got involved at his home parish, All Saints. He joined the youth group in 2017, then became a youth leader and an officer in the Knights of Columbus. He also served as an usher and choir member.
Now he’s a manager at Texas Movie Bistro in Fort Worth while he waits for a spot in Air Force boot camp.
Xavier and Harrison both arrived at Cassata in the fall of 2017, with Harrison teaching Xavier in her first class at the school.
“He’s one of the students we saw who really transformed, matured, and blossomed,” she said. “We witnessed his growth, and we’re immensely proud of the young man he’s become.”