Bekah S. McNeel

Listening to stories of SAISD’s most at-risk students, it becomes clear that in addition to (and sometimes in place of) the ordinary cares of high school – homework, relationships, and extra-curricular activities – many of these students were handling circumstances that I, at age 29, am only now beginning to confront.

Like parenting. Or caring for family members. Some students are overcoming homelessness by working more than 30 hours per week. Pressures of family and finances make a traditional eight-hour school day ineffective, if not impossible.

Navarro High School. Photo by Bekah McNeel.
Navarro High School. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Many of us have simply never had to look those kind of stakes in the eye. Much less try to do so while studying for a geometry test. For those students, and others identified as the most at-risk for dropping out before graduation, something more must be done.

Navarro High School is doing more. They are going above and beyond to move students toward a high school diploma, which will exponentially increase their opportunities for success in life.

Navarro’s average enrollment is 180 students, which seems small until you consider the extra support necessary to address the needs of these teenagers. Principal Gustavo Cordova knows that support may need to go beyond academics. His staff includes a social worker, two counselors, teen-parenting director, and an employment coach.

“We’re case managing every single student,” said Cordova.

Navarro High School Principal Gustavo Cordova
Navarro High School Principal Gustavo Cordova. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Navarro specializes in students facing three main obstacles:

1) Falling Behind

Students who fall behind so far that the prospect of catching up seems impossible. These students have been held back more than once and so find themselves several years older than their classmates, on track to age out of traditional school before they gain a diploma.

Navarro has sophomores who are legal adults, seniors who are 20 years-old, and students in their early 20’s working toward a high school diploma.

For students who have fallen behind, small classes and online learning at Navarro allow them to catch up to – and often surpass – their traditional school cohort. At a traditional high school, students are allowed to accumulate 6.5 credits per year. At Navarro, students can accumulate as many as they earn, and graduate as soon as they are eligible.

This has made the difference for 11th-grader Richelly Rivera, who came to Navarro from Edison High School because she had fallen behind. She took full advantage of A+ Enriched Online classes and flourished in the small classes. Before long she was caught up to her peers back at Edison, at which point some Navarro students decide to return to their traditional school to experience prom, football, and the rest of high school culture. Rivera, however, had tasted achievement, and she liked it.

“Here we can accelerate faster,” said Rivera, who has gone from “at-risk” status to on track for graduating a year early.

Richelly Rivera and Carlos Vasquez at Navarro High School - photo by Bekah McNeel
Richelly Rivera and Carlos Vasquez at Navarro High School. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

When she graduates, Rivera plans to go to Mims Classic Beauty College to pursue a career as an esthetician. She’ll do so with a high school diploma in hand, making her more employable and eligible for more management positions and higher wages.

The diploma is an important distinction for Navarro. They do not offer students the option of taking the GED, which is not valued as highly by the job market.

2) Students That Are Parents

If a school wants to graduate teen parents, on-site daycare is a given. At Navarro, they go a few steps further.

Teenage mothers and fathers can be enrolled in parenting classes during the school day. The classes cover relationship building, early literacy, money management, nutrition, healthcare, and childhood development practices such as stimulating play.

This support makes a difference – not only to the lives of the teen parents, but the lives of their children. Of the 33 parents eligible for graduation last year at Navarro, 30 passed their exit exams and walked away with a diploma. That’s as many as 30 more children who will grow up in a home that values education.

3) Caretaker Students

Some students must work to provide food, shelter and clothing for themselves and/or their family.

In these cases the challenge is multi-faceted. It takes understanding and flexibility on the part of educators and employers to help the student find the right balance.

Cordova told the story about a student who was consistently late and often disengaged in class. Upon closer investigation, they learned that the student was working the graveyard shift at a loading dock. By the time he left his shift, came home to shower and change, and got to school, he was often far too sleepy to learn effectively.

Cordova and the staff made it possible for the student to attend four classes per day, instead of eight. He attends those four afternoon classes more rested and more able to learn. Navarro has made this arrangement with a number of their students, allowing them to take fewer classes in order to keep the jobs that they need to survive.

Of course, there are also jobs that fit nicely around a school day schedule, especially for students who don’t necessarily need more than 30 hours.

Monica Lopez, employment coach at Navarro High School -photo by Bekah McNeel
Monica Lopez, employment coach at Navarro High School -photo by Bekah McNeel

Monica Lopez is the employment coach at Navarro. She helps students connect to after-school jobs and part time positions that prioritize the school day. Because they come from across the district, Navarro students have discounted or free VIA fares, and many of them can use that to get to work.

Locating the right job is only the first step in employment. The realities of getting and keeping the job can be just as challenging.  Lopez helps students who need to work and who are already working with their schedule management, interviewing skills, and workplace conflict resolution.

“The students here are awesome, they just need that guidance,” Lopez said.

Her main goal is to help students find jobs that will lead to careers. This involves pursuing relationships with employers who will offer entry-level positions to high school students and bring presentations onto campus to help educate the students about the opportunities ahead of them.

One such relationship that has made a big impression is Ernst and Young. The firm has committed to a mentoring program with the Navarro students and has inspired many to think long-term about their career goals. Twelfth-grader Carlos Vasquez has taken note of their success stories, and has drafted a plan of his own. He plans to get his basics taken care of at either San Antonio College or St. Phillip’s College before transferring to UTSA to study civil engineering.

Vasquez also noted that his teachers have a lot to do with his success.

“They push me a lot,” Vasquez said.

It would be easy for those who teach at-risk students to lower their expectations, or simply be satisfied with minimal progress. But the culture of Navarro is one of urgency. Cordova, Lopez, and others know that the very hurdles these students face today will give them the tenacity and skills to succeed in their future careers. That resource is too great to let it slip through the cracks.

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.