The little school that could is helping students climb higher – Interview with Dru Watkins – Counselor, Mount Carmel High School

Mount Carmel High School was a mainstay in a small Houston area community called Garden Villas but when the Catholic Church announced the school’s closure— the community took action.

Not only is Garden Villas a close-knit community of modest homes and working class people but the community association even has its own radio station. The area also had its own treasured private Catholic high school named Mount Carmel Academy. When the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston announced it could no longer provide monetary support for the school and it was to be closed, the community of Garden Villas, the Mount Carmel faculty and former students launched an all-out campaign and prayer vigil to make sure the school would survive and continue to provide a better quality education for area students.

Almost immediately, Houston Independent School District (HISD) realized the school was worth saving and proposed reopening Mount Carmel as an HISD charter school. Charter schools in Texas mean they typically provide a step-above the average public school offering; charter schools are just about as close as you can get to a private school education without tuition. In fact, Mount Carmel is a college preparatory academy. Students transferring in from other schools say the material at Mount Carmel is more challenging than the public schools from which they came.

Nothing about Mount Carmel or its counselor is “average…”

The high school’s college counselor is Dru Watkins. His background is not that of a typical counselor. He got his B.A. in Philosophy and earned his M.A in Humanities both from the University of Houston. He interned as a marketing copywriter at a company specializing in internet SEO (Search Engine Optimization). He also was a musician playing at various local venues. He is an avid reader and lover of the English language. He never imagined himself teaching in a high school until one of his mentor’s suggested he apply to Mount Carmel. Coincidently, his mother and several of his uncles had attended the school years earlier. “It must have been some sort of weird fate,” he says. He applied and got the job as an English teacher—oh, and by the way, the astute and proactive school principal Maureen Giacchino also pegged him as the ideal college counselor. As a result, “I do double duty here at the school,” Dru continued. “On the one hand I am a classroom teacher of dual credit English—that means students get both high school and college credit for taking our advanced English class. I am a teacher and disciplinarian while in the classroom and as a counselor I am their advocate, confidante and guide as they traverse the road to enter the realm of higher learning. My job is to inspire, encourage and motivate.”

Most people think of a private or semi-private school as serving the most well-to-do in society but that is not the case at Mount Carmel where the student body is 84% economically disadvantaged. Even though most parents and single moms are of average or below average annual household income levels, they care about their children and want them to achieve. “Most of our students want to go to college,” says Dru. “In order to graduate, our seniors must provide a college acceptance letter. From 80 to 90 percent of the students go on to attend a college or university. Our students are just as hungry to go to college as those from the better known and often expensive private schools.”

Giving back is required...

Mount Carmel seniors must also complete 100 hours of volunteer service, mostly to the Garden Villas community, before they can graduate. Volunteer service must be strictly non-paid and students often serve at the Houston Food Bank, tutor children at a Garden Villas elementary school or participate in Navidad En El Barrio—a non-profit organization that provides entertainment, lunch and gifts to disadvantaged school children especially during the Christmas season.

“Most of our students need grants and scholarships to help them monetarily as they continue their education,” Dru emphasized. “I encourage them to apply for financial aid and then I help them ‘get out of the gate’ with their essays. I find it rewarding to simply brainstorm with them and assist them in getting their thoughts together. It’s amazing to see how a bit of encouragement and organization can spark creativity. Since the essays cannot be braggadocios, I offer loose guidelines then let them fly. They seem to blossom on their own when expressing their unique strengths in writing.”

Dru thinks it is important that his students understand the various cultures of the schools they find interesting or attractive. He explains, “Each college or university has its own proficiencies, attitudes, beliefs and customs. These are often inferred and not written. Therefore, I encourage college representatives to come to our campus and tell our students about their schools. Our students are motivated by these introductions. I like to give them a ‘taste’ of what they can expect before they make a final decision.”

It’s very clear that Dru Watkins wants to help his students and steer them in the right direction. He is like the consummate salesman who listens more than he speaks. The size of Mount Carmel (currently 353 students) allows him to get to know his students on a personal level rather than them being a vague

face or a number. He says he loves his one-on-one counseling but also relishes the “all-at-once” advisory group meetings when 80 or more students meet to have an open discussion about their goals, their college plans and to express their hopes, fears and concerns

Nearly all of the student’s parents are working one or even two jobs and don’t have a lot of spare time, but there is never a shortage of parents who donate or volunteer to help at the school or with school activities. “There is a community team spirit here that is seldom found in large metropolitan area neighborhoods,” Dru observed. “One only has to look at the way everyone rallied around Mrs. Giacchino when she went to bat to help keep this school going. I even rented a home here so I could be a part of the community rather than just an outsider commuting in; I want to be part of this unique ‘can do’ spirit.”

And speaking of “spirit”, since Mount Carmel has become part of the public school system, religion is no longer taught. They instead place emphasis on character building, perseverance, conflict resolution and the realistic outcomes of poor behaviors including alcohol/drug addiction.

In the children’s tale of “The Little Engine That Could”, a small train engine overcame a seemingly impossible task simply by thinking it could. Mount Carmel was once on the verge of becoming unsustainable; but its spirit not only survived—it now thrives. If the school’s staff, students and the Garden Villas community has anything to do with it, there is no obstacle that can’t be overcome and there is no mountain this little school can’t climb.


Connie Voss has been writing professionally for over 40 years. Her body of work includes a wide range of technical articles and human interest stories. She researched and wrote St. Thomas High School in the 20th Century an account of the first 100 years of a well-known Houston, Texas boys’ school. She writes a monthly column on advertising and marketing and assists a variety of industrial firms with their advertising communications.