May 27, 2022 by HCDE-Texas
The day high school students long for, marked by caps, gowns, and memories, was hard-earned for Jasmin Flores.
“I never thought I would come this far—ever,” said Flores, who completed the required credits in time to graduate a full year early.
Flores is one of seven students who completed their coursework at Fortis Academy, Harris County’s first public high school for students recovering from alcohol and drug addiction. Each will receive diplomas from their home districts in the coming weeks.
HCDE trustees, Department leaders, district liaisons, school staff, families, and classmates gathered to ceremoniously usher the former students into the next phase of life.
“I could not have asked for a better graduating class as a first-year principal,” said Fortis Principal Travita Godfrey. “I am so proud of these young men and women and all the work they did to stand here today.”
The seven graduates—Piper Calcagno, Jasmin Flores, Tommy Gomez, Julian Guerrero, Kahless Lousteau, Nayelly Ramirez-Salazar, and Javier Rodgriguez—face a future of possibilities, each with their own path in mind.
Flores, referred to Fortis by Channelview Independent School District, plans to complete her basics at a community college and eventually major in psychology. She is grateful to each of Fortis’ teachers and licensed chemical dependency counselors who helped her realize her future.
“They were there for me through every step of the way and every challenge I came across,” she said. “I feel nervous for my next step, but I’m ready.”
Channelview ISD high school counselor Yolanda Richardson credits Fortis’ low student-to-teacher ratio and support system to Flores’ success.
“Fortis is very different from other alternative programs,” she said. “It’s a small setting, and I think that’s great because they get a lot more one-on-one than they might get at a large high school.”
Also in attendance was Galena Park Independent School District Director for Educational Support Myra Castaneda, who celebrated the three graduates from her district, including senior class representative Julian Guerrero.
Seeing Guerrero in cap and gown was a culmination of Castaneda’s efforts years in the making. As the person who oversees alternative school placements for her district, Castaneda says Galena Park ISD was one of the first districts to refer students to Fortis Academy when it opened during the 2017-2018 school year.
“I believed in this campus and what it’s doing for our kids, so I fought to increase seats and get our kids who really needed the help to come here,” she said. “Julian would call my office every day and say, ‘Did you figure something out? I can’t do this without you. I can’t do this without coming to Fortis.’”
Castaneda says the students she helps the most have no idea that she is the “wizard behind the scenes,” so putting a face to Guerrero’s name was a heartfelt moment for her.
“Julian’s never met me in person, but I knew all about him. I’m tearing up because he really did it. This is what it’s about,” she said. “It’s an emotional thing for me because all we want is for our students to succeed at whatever cost. That’s why we’re in education.”
Since completing his required credits in December 2021, Guerrero has been working part-time in HCDE’s Records Management division.
“Harris County has been nothing but good to me. There are not enough words to express my gratitude toward them,” he said. “Before Fortis, I was a mad and naive kid, and now I’m coming out as a young man.”