Long-ago dropout's tough lessons inspire kids in HISD
Craig Zeno grew up in public housing in southeast Houston believing he had three options in life.
"I was told I was either going to be dead, in jail or on drugs," Zeno recalls. "I didn't want that."
So, he fought for more. Zeno became a college graduate whose job now is to inspire struggling high school students with his own story of perseverance.
Zeno works for the Houston Independent School District as a graduation coach at Worthing High School. He talks students out of dropping out — as he once did. And he helps them complete courses they've failed. His efforts won him an award from the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network in November.
"You name it, I've been through it," says Zeno, 35.
Growing up with a single mom who bounced between jobs and boyfriends, Zeno recalls days the family couldn't afford food or the electric bill. At times, he stayed with friends and relatives to avoid the streets. He couldn't concentrate in school.
Zeno flunked three courses as a senior at Milby High School. But instead of repeating them, he never returned. Two months later, he passed the GED high school-equivalency exam and enrolled at the University of Houston-Downtown, where he failed to earn a single credit.
"I just wasn't focused," says Zeno, who transferred to Texas Southern University and committed to studying. He graduated from TSU in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in the administration of justice.
After stints as a parole officer, employment counselor and probation officer, Zeno landed at HISD, where he had worked in college as a substitute teacher.
'He shows tough love'
He excelled in his new job as a dropout prevention specialist. He visited homes and shelters to draw students back to school.
"The level of confidence and trust he builds with the kids comes very naturally and deeply," says Mark White, Zeno's then-boss and HISD's manager of student engagement. "His passion is just pouring out of his veins."
This school year, Zeno transferred into the role of graduation coach. HISD Superintendent Terry Grier created the positions at every comprehensive high school to help students who have failed courses and are on track to drop out. The coaches guide the students through online classes via laptops in so-called "grad labs."
Most of Zeno's students are two or three grade levels behind. They come with challenges: pregnancy, poverty, depression. This semester, he says, his students have finished 87 courses, putting them closer to a diploma.
Tierra Rogers, an 18-year-old sophomore who has been homeless and in foster care, says she can relate to Zeno.
"He's a good teacher," she says. "Sometimes I get really off course. He'll sit me down and say, 'You need to get this done.' He shows tough love."
Zeno embraces a whatever-it-takes attitude. When he couldn't get HISD officials to paint his drab classroom, he bought the supplies and did it himself. He covered the walls in bright yellow and added motivational sayings in green: "No Excuses!", "Make it Happen!", "Failure is Not an Option!".
"If you ever come to me and say, 'I have a problem,' " Zeno says, "I never tell you, 'There's nothing I can do.' "
Zeno teamed with the parent group at Worthing to get donations of healthy snacks for the students and dipped into his own wallet to buy backpacks and a barbecue dinner for those who completed their courses.
He formed a service club - passing on the lesson of giving to his students. They've donated toys to needy families, 1,600 pounds of food and planted grass at a city park. Zeno bought the participants T-shirts with the club name, GIVE, for Grad Lab Students Involved in Volunteer Efforts." The motto: Work hard. Live free.
Zeno puts in 12-hour days at the grad lab and he planned to be there through winter break for students needing to wrap up work.
"My whole job," Zeno says, "is to really inspire and say, 'No matter what you're going through, you're gonna make it.' "
Zeno is the proof.
Local Advertising by PaperG