Nonprofit works to keep Atlanta high school students on track to graduation

Catalina Valdez is the re-engagement coordinator for Communities in Schools Atlanta at Cross Keys High School. She has a minimum caseload of 25 students. (Matthew Pearson/For WABE)

The pandemic disrupted learning for a lot of Georgia students especially those in vulnerable populations. Communities in Schools, an education-focused non-profit is working to help many of them finish high school.

Trying to meet the need

Catalina Valdez and Frederica Teodori work for CIS Atlanta at Cross Keys High School in DeKalb County. More than half of Cross Keys’ 1700 students are considered “economically disadvantaged.” 90% of students are Latino. 170 students qualify for CIS services. Valdez and Teodori can’t serve all of those students individually, but Cross Keys also receives schoolwide services from CIS to accommodate additional students and families.

“It is about removing their external barriers so [students] can focus on school,” Valdez says.

She and Teodori keep snacks in the office where they visit with students.  They can also help out with supplies. A big part of their job, though, is to provide guidance. That starts first thing in the morning when they check their students’ attendance.

“If I see a student is absent or tardy, I send them a quick text: ‘Is it a doctor’s appointment or are you sick?” Valdez says. “Did you wake up late? Then they’ll hit me back like, ‘Oh, I woke up late. My mom’s already sending the excuse note.’ Things like that.”

Attendance is a key factor in whether students graduate. Valdez and Teodori are in constant contact with students, parents and teachers to ensure kids are showing up at school and staying on track.  They’re also native Spanish speakers, which helps them communicate with all parties involved. They’re each assigned a “caseload” of students. Teodori can have up to 65. Valdez can have up to 35. 

Frederica Teodori counsels a new student about which classes he should take. (Matthew Pearson/For WABE)

‘It’s a fine line

At the beginning of the school year, they counsel students on their courseloads.

“Sometimes they don’t know how many credits they need to graduate,” Teodori says.

Valdez says some students may think they’re in a higher grade than they actually are. A student may think he’s a sophomore, she says, because it’s his second year in high school, but he may be missing a credit or two, meaning he’s still a freshman.

“It’s a fine line between [being] a guiding parent figure versus being overbearing,” Valdez says. “You don’t want to be seen as their mom or their parent.”

But sometimes they do have to fill a parental role. Some Cross Keys students are unaccompanied, meaning their parents haven’t come with them to the U.S. They live with relative s— an aunt or a cousin — while trying to go to school and often working.

“I have a student [who] works overnight at a chicken factory,” Valdez says. “We have a lot of cases like that. If they’re not here, they’re either in construction or they’re bussing [tables].” Her students face unique challenges, like figuring out life in a new country, learning a new language, and working in addition to going to school to help their families. Valdez worked with four students last school year who “stopped out” for various reasons. All of them ended up returning. Two graduated. The remaining two are finishing school, but are a year behind.

“I tell [the students] I was here. They’re like, ‘Oh, why’d you come back?’ And I’m like, ‘I come back for you guys.'”

Catalina Valdez, re-engagement coordinator, CIS Atlanta, Cross Keys High School
Cross Keys High School serves a majority Latino population. It has about 1700 students. Ten percent qualify for CIS services, but not all will receive individual support. (Matthew Pearson/For WABE)

Positive signs

The pandemic was tough for a lot of students, including those at Cross Keys. Research shows remote learning didn’t serve most students well. Still, Teodori says she’s noticed a change in many of her students since they’ve resumed in-person learning.

“I had several students want to join the volleyball team, other kids the art club, other kids the band, so this is good to see,” she says. “Hopefully the morale and the sense of belonging to the community and to the school is increasing.”

Teodori says that kind of involvement also improves attendance and increases their chances of graduating. That’s what she and Valdez want for their students. About 60% of Cross Keys students graduate in four years. But the numbers are better for CIS students. Seventy-eight percent of the students Teodori and Valdez worked with last school year graduated or were promoted.

For Valdez, the success of her students is personal. She graduated from Cross Keys in 2017.

“I grew up here,” she says. “I know this community. I tell [the students] I was here. They’re like, ‘Oh, why’d you come back?’ because they never want to come back. And I’m like, ‘I come back for you guys.’”

For Catalina Valdez, the work is personal. She graduated from Cross Keys in 2017 and wants to see her students succeed. (Matthew Pearson/For WABE)