Savanah Salazar shares a laugh with administrators at the Community School. She stopped by for the last time to bid farewell.
Salazar takes a graduation photo for the school's Wall of Honor.
Savanah Salazar has beaten long odds to earn a high school diploma and pursue her dream of nursing.
Salazar dropped out of high school during her freshman year to take care of her mother, who was diagnosed with breast cancer. About seven years later, after taking advantage of the Pasadena ISD’s Community School program, she has her diploma in hand and is pursuing a nursing degree at San Jacinto College.
It is an accomplishment that came with many hurdles along the way.
“When I found out my mother had breast cancer, I’d come home from school to bathe her, feed her and drive her to chemotherapy -- without a license,” Salazar said. “I knew I wasn’t supposed to drive without a license, but she’s my mom. I was intent on taking care of her.”
With her father not around, her brother in the Navy and her mother ill, Salazar experienced adulthood earlier than most teens. Her days as a straight-A student and star athlete became a distant memory.
“It got overwhelming to the point where my mind was clouded with all the personal things going on,” Salazar said. “I threw my hands up and thought ‘I’m done with school – with everything.’”
At 20, Salazar considered following in her brother’s footsteps and joining the Navy. She decided instead to explore different educational options for adults and reached out to various schools, including her former high school, about returning to the classroom. She said school officials considered her “too old” to go back.
“It made me see the institution of education in a different light,” Salazar said. “I begged and pleaded with my original high school. I told them my mother was going through cancer. I asked if there was some program where I could go to school at night. I asked, ‘Can you work with me?’”
No one could, she said.
Salazar regained her faith in the education system when she moved with her mother to the Pasadena area. She heard about the Community School program and met the school’s director, Tom Swan.
“I thought I was too old,” Salazar said. “I didn’t think I could go to high school and do four years. I called Mr. Tom Swan. He told me that I wasn’t too old. He told me to bring my transcript and that we’d sit down and have a meeting about it.”
The Community School allows individuals who are credits shy of graduating the opportunity to earn a diploma through flexible schedules and programs designed to fit a student’s learning style.
The campus celebrated a major milestone last year when it graduated its 500th student since it was established in 2010.
Swan, who celebrated 50 years of service to the Pasadena ISD last year, and Jennifer Berry, the assistant principal, worked with Salazar to establish a graduation plan. The support of the faculty and staff at the school helped Salazar rebound from her complicated past.
“She is one of the most dedicated students I have ever had the pleasure of meeting,” Swan said. “I saw something in her when I first met her. I knew she would not give up and if given a chance, she would succeed.”
Upon meeting Swan for the first time, she also discovered something in him that was unique in comparison to educators she met in the past.
“I thought he was crazy,” she joked. “He’s so funny. He’s one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met. Aside from being a teacher, I respect him as a man. When I had my interview with him, he saw that I essentially needed all of my credits, but he was willing to work with me.”
Salazar admitted that making up four years of high school was no walk in the park. She made a commitment to finish and accomplished that goal in about seven months.
“Honestly, one of the initial reasons I came here was because I thought it would be easy,” Salazar said. “But the computer work is challenging. Even with me being a quick learner and having good communication skills, it was actually more difficult than normal high school.”
Her days at the Community School mainly involved taking self-paced computer classes that she completed either at school or at home. Salazar said she would arrive at 8 a.m., rarely take lunch breaks and then leave a couple of hours after school to study and complete the assignments.
“She is so inspiring,” said Jennifer Berry, Community School’s assistant principal. “There were times she would stay and work from 8 a.m. until after 8 p.m. and she would never complain about it.”
“I’m a very quick person so that’s one thing that kind of bothered me about normal school – I couldn’t go at my own pace,” Salazar said. “I didn’t like staying behind in class. With the computer programs, if I’m done with something, it says you pass -- and boom, you’re done. You keep progressing that way. A class that would take you an entire semester, but it took me a week to complete here.”
Salazar credits her success to the teachers she met at the Community School.
“I can honestly say that I love all of the teachers,” she said. “They all know me personally and they all helped me.”
Salazar’s mother has been in remission almost five years now. Salazar has come a long way since she first learned about her mother’s diagnosis. She has a husband, Cory, and a daughter, Isabella, and works as a caregiver. Salazar is taking classes at San Jacinto College to become a nurse -- a fitting choice considering her first-hand experience taking care of her mother when she was younger.
“I think taking care of people and rehabilitating them is something I was born to do,” she said.
Salazar said she encourages others to take advantage of the opportunity offered by Community School.
“Do it yesterday,” she said. “I bet a lot of people think that the students who come here were just too lazy to complete high school and that they are just depending on the system to hand them their diploma.”
Salazar has good reason for taking exception to those characterizations.
“No one has ever handed me anything,” she said.
“I came to Community School sad and they lifted me up. I had teachers pray for me. They would go above and beyond and they didn’t need to. The Community School has not only provided me with a diploma, they have given me opportunities that I would not have had otherwise.”
For those interested in the opportunity to attend the Community School, visit the website at http://community.pasadenaisd.org/contact_school.
Savanah Salazar has beaten the odds.