At-risk students find success when they ‘Stay the Course’

by Sandra Engelland

North Texas Catholic

June 11, 2019

Meesha Robinson with nine of her 12 childrenMeesha Robinson poses with nine of her 12 children during a graduation party for participants in the Stay the Course program at Catholic Charities, Thursday, June 6, 2019. (NTC/Rodger Mallison)
Meesha Robinson poses with nine of her 12 children during a graduation party for participants in the Stay the Course program at Catholic Charities, Thursday, June 6, 2019. (NTC/Rodger Mallison) More graduation photos!


FORT WORTH — It was a long journey for Meesha Robinson to get to the podium as a featured speaker at a graduation celebration June 6 at Catholic Charities Fort Worth.

Several years ago, she lived in public housing and received public aid in California with her 12 kids, and she dealt with domestic violence.

“I was always waiting on a check, and I got tired of the life I was living,” Robinson said. “I prayed about it and took my 12 kids and went to Dallas.”

She didn’t really know anyone in Texas but thought it would be a good place for a new start. Robinson and her kids lived at a budget motel in Dallas for a year before moving to Fort Worth. It was in Fort Worth she decided to go to school at Tarrant County College Northeast, where she was accepted into the honors college.

Soon Robinson found out about Stay the Course, which assigns each student a case manager called a navigator and also gives strategic financial assistance for non-educational expenses. The program is provided by Catholic Charities Fort Worth in conjunction with the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) at the University of Notre Dame and with the collaboration of Tarrant County Colleges.

“They started helping me with things like bills and little things my kids needed,” Robinson said.

The biggest assistance came from her navigator Alta Franke, who helped her find resources, set goals, learn to budget, and stay positive.

Now Robinson is preparing to move with the eight children still at home to Denton where she has a full scholarship to the Honors College at Texas Woman’s University. The biggest obstacle? Finding affordable housing for her large family. Officials with Catholic Charities continue to provide help in the search, she said.

Her goal is to pursue pre-med studies and then go to medical school to become a physician for women.

Graduate Viviana Gonzales poses with Ronna Huckaby of Catholic Charities Fort Worth. (NTC/Rodger Mallison)
Graduate Viviana Gonzales poses with Ronna Huckaby of Catholic Charities Fort Worth. (NTC/Rodger Mallison)

Ending poverty one family at a time

Judith Priest, director of client navigation for CCFW, said that Stay the Course has proven very successful since it was founded in 2013 at the Tarrant County College Trinity River Campus. Now it is available at five TCC campuses and serves about 400 at-risk students.

Participants receive their associate degrees and/or transfer to a four-year college at a much higher rate than at-risk students outside the program, Priest said.

Students must be Pell Grant eligible or living below the poverty line, take at least six credit hours a semester, and take at least one Texas Success Initiative Assessment to get into the program. TSI tests determine the appropriate level of college course work.

“Our navigators work with those students to set goals and action steps. They’re really focused on non-academic barriers like housing, childcare, and better time management,” Priest said.

They also help students learn basic budgeting skills and how to build up an emergency fund.

The goal is for each student to receive their associate degree or transfer to a four-year college in three years or less. About 75 percent of the participants reach that milestone.

Each student in Stay the Course is eligible for $1,500 in financial assistance ($500 at a time) for non-academic needs. Most participants use it for car repairs or childcare.

“We’ve bought a lot of students tires,” Priest said. “We want to eliminate barriers and help them plan for the future so they don’t land in that situation again.

“By learning how to budget effectively, the dollars they do have are going to go further.”

Catholic Charities CEO and President Michael P. Grace congratulates Bonane Amosi, who earned an Associate of Arts degree in Philosophy from TCC Trinity River. (NTC/Rodger Mallison)
Catholic Charities CEO and President Michael P. Grace congratulates Bonane Amosi, who earned an Associate of Arts degree in Philosophy from TCC Trinity River. (NTC/Rodger Mallison)

Students in Stay the Course are smart and motivated but are likely to be the first in their family to go to college and may not have the support or knowledge of how to complete their degrees, Priest said.

The ultimate goal is to empower students to land good jobs with good pay.

“Our goal is ending poverty one family at a time,” she said. “Education is one of the key areas for changing the trajectory not just for them, but for their children as well.”

Stay the Course has been so successful that University of Notre Dame LEO officials are expanding it to other places. Last year, Stay the Course began in Fort Wayne, Ind. This fall, another three sites will open.

Robinson credits her navigator Franke with helping her graduate from TCC with honors. More important than the help with bills and budgeting strategies, Franke was always available to listen.

Franke currently assists 32 students at the TCC Northeast campus.

“For me, it is basically making sure the person is getting the necessary resources,” Franke said.

Tarrant County Stay the Course has 13 navigators, with each taking on 30 to 40 students. The program will add several more this fall, Priest said.

Robinson also said several of her children made big contributions, with a 23-year-old daughter (now married) often caring for young siblings and other kids pitching in to help with household duties. Her kids range from 4 to 25.

At the June 6 celebration where Robinson spoke to her fellow Stay the Course graduates, their families, and the staff and donors that made the program possible, the 42-year-old mother wanted everyone to know that with God all things are possible.

In closing she said, “Now success is within reach, and I know I can do anything through God who strengthens me.”

FORT WORTH — It was a long journey for Meesha Robinson to get to the podium as a featured speaker at a graduation celebration June 6 at Catholic Charities Fort Worth.

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