Students work on assignments during class on Sept. 13 at Cassata High School. The campus has seen an increase in students with learning differences from 15% to 50% over four years. (Kristen Barton | Fort Worth Report photo)

Marc Anthony Guevara is a visual learner, and he needs more one-on-one time with a teacher to succeed. At Cassata Catholic High School, he gets both.

Marc, 16, was working with science teacher James Hurley on Sept. 13 where Hurley asked him to pick three different colors of clay for a DNA sample: one for protons, one for neutrons and one for electrons. 

The visual aids help him see what he’s learning, versus a typical lecture. And it’s a big part of why his parents decided to transfer him to Cassata. 

Cassata Catholic High School, which aims to help students with difficulty in traditional school settings, has seen an increase in students with learning differences from 15% to 50% over the last four years.

Learning differences means any type of accommodations that have to be made in the classroom. This could range from a student needing visual aids separate from the lesson to medical needs throughout the day. 

All of these tools and more are being applied on a daily basis and the individualized lessons and smaller classes could be a map for other schools navigating similar situations.

What is Cassata Catholic High School?

Nestled on Hemphill Street by Near Southside, Cassata Catholic High School has been part of the landscape of Fort Worth since 1975, when local nuns opened the school to serve educational needs of the community.

President Maggie Harrison said the school was founded specifically to help people who wanted to complete high school or get a GED — the equivalent of a high school diploma for those who go back to school — but could not do so in a traditional school setting.

Today, that practice remains. Harrison said there are several reasons students might choose Cassata: They need to work to support their family, they’re young parents, they had behavior issues at another school, or they need the individualized support the campus can provide.

2021-22 stats to know

Students served: 147

Total number of graduates: 28

75% of graduates went on to post-secondary education

18% of graduates earned college credit through Tarrant County College dual credit program

Total amount of scholarships offered: $96,460

The school admits students starting as early as freshmen in high school, but does not age out. If people want to come to Cassata to work toward a GED, they can enroll no matter what age they are.

A school day at the nontraditional school is broken into two parts, an 8:30-11:30 a.m. session and a 12:30-3:30 p.m. session. Harrison said the students work out a schedule that works for them. 

While the students go to classrooms with teachers for the subjects they’re seeking credits in, the learning is self-paced. Harrison said students get a syllabus and textbook and work on their classwork at their own pace. The teachers are there to help students as they need.

Tuition at Cassata is $8,100, but hardly anyone pays full price. The tuition is sliding scale based on income, so it’s more accessible to the community.

Cassata does not necessarily have students for an entire school year. Some students only come for a semester, some just for the weeks it takes to get a credit they need. 

Instead of typical enrollment numbers, Harrison said they look at how many students the school serves. Currently, 90 students have enrolled in some way with the school this year.

Learning accommodations

Layla Aguero sometimes needs audiobooks. Sometimes she needs a teacher to read to her. Her dyslexia makes it difficult to read and complete assignments. 

She gets those accommodations and more at Cassatta. The 16-year-old said she wasn’t getting the help she needed at her public school or the alternative school she tried. 

“The teachers are very wonderful, too. They help a lot,” Layla said. “They try to help you individually whenever they can, and when they do they give you their full attention. They’re really good here.”

Sometimes, she needs help with more than her dyslexia. Layla has anxiety, depression and psychosis. 

“There are some days I’m not feeling my best and there are others that I am. The teachers are very, very open. And they’re very nice,” she said. “When I tell them I’m not really having a good day or I need to do this or do something a different way, they’re pretty good about working with me about it.”

According to the CDC, 37% of high school students reported poor mental health in 2021 and 44% reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless.

Harrison acknowledged the impact of the pandemic on mental health in students. She believes part of the reason Cassata has seen such an increase in students who need extra help — whether academically or emotionally — is because parents want a smaller environment so those needs are addressed.

“I think it just became more and more obvious during the pandemic that we really do a particularly good job — and not because we really focused on students with learning differences, but that students with learning differences find it much easier to learn in this environment,” she said. “It’s more conducive to learning and calms down some of the anxieties. Because we’re so small, we’re able to be creative in the ways in which we address their needs.”

For example, not all students with ADHD need the same accommodations. Harrison said the team of seven teachers will work together to look at each student’s needs and exchange notes on what works best.

Sometimes the teachers make special additions for the student’s notes, like putting parts of it in different colors if it helps their reading. Sometimes a teacher might print enlarged versions of a handout. But accommodations could also mean noticing when a student with anxiety is distressed and needs a walk or some other way to calm down. It could mean a visit with the counselor to talk about their depression.

The school can present a lot of metrics to donors like graduation rates, post-secondary education or dual credit hours, but Harrison believes there’s more that makes it special. The school is able to focus on social and emotional learning and help students with more than reading and writing.

“There’s some of the individual stories that matter, like the student who is so riddled with anxiety and so, so depressed the parents are saying, ‘We just don’t even know what to do with him anymore.’ And he comes here and makes friends, belongs to (student council), reads prayers and announcements on a loudspeaker and forges really strong friendships,” Harrison said. 

“We had one of our really, really high achieving students recently who was painfully shy,” Harrison added. “She ended up being a valedictorian and reading her speech at graduation. Those are the moments you look for.”

Aside from the counseling available on campus, the school has a partnership with the program Christian Works, which provides eight sponsored counseling sessions for families if needed. Sometimes, though, it can be as simple as checking in with a student and getting them a snack and some water.

“Many of our students work long hours. They go from here to work and are so tired,” Harrison said. “Some of them are teenage parents, so they stay up with their babies. Knowing them as well as we do is another reason why we’re so successful.”

The campus is working to help students like Marc, who wants to be a welder. And Layla, who can now complete her book reports.

It’s not a perfect place. There are students who come here and for whom that model doesn’t work because they want something like a traditional school athletics, they want to be in clubs,” Harrison said. “But the majority of the ones who come here really want to be here and they find it to be their safe place.”
Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at kristen.barton@fortworthreport.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Kristen Barton

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She has previous experience in education reporting for her hometown paper, the Longview News-Journal and her college paper, The Daily...