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Teens forge a path past challenging academic and social obstacles through leadership program

“Yes, he’s a black man, and he’s an inspiration to me, but not even just that–he’s fair,” Willyam “BJ” Winston says of Barack Obama. “He targets all races that live in the U.S. He’s trying to be a global icon, and I admire that.”

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“Yes, he’s a black man, and he’s an inspiration to me, but not even just that–he’s fair,” Willyam “BJ” Winston says of Barack Obama. “He targets all races that live in the U.S. He’s trying to be a global icon, and I admire that.”

Winston, a 17-year-old senior at McCallum High School in Austin, is recounting discussions he and other student members of COBRA–the Community of Brothers in Revolutionary Alliance–have had during their weekly meetings. Listening to his responses to questions and his concrete future plans, it is easy to forget that he, his fellow COBRA members and the members of the young women’s group VOICES, come from demographic groups traditionally underserved by schools, and routinely have high drop-out rates and low college attendance rates.

McCallum High School VOICES and COBRA students plan for the 2009-10 school year

McCallum High School VOICES and COBRA students get busy planning for the 2009-10 school year. 

Perhaps nobody does a better job of explaining how he beat the odds than Winston himself, who will be entering Texas State University this fall. “You’ve got to improve yourself before you can improve society as a whole. You know what I’m saying?”

As a member of COBRA, Winston found a cadre of peers who not only knew what he was saying but lived it daily. COBRA is a mentorship, leadership development and academic engagement program which got its start in fall 2006 on the campus of LBJ High School in the Austin Independent School District (AISD). The program was established under the auspices of the Institute for Community, University and School Partnerships (ICUSP) in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE) at The University of Texas at Austin.

COBRA was initially designed to help young men identified at high risk of dropping out of school “not just to survive, but thrive,” according to ICUSP director and program co-founder and DDCE faculty fellow, Dr. Kevin Michael Foster.

“The skills the students develop–goal setting, perseverance, and seeking and providing moral and intellectual support–serve the students well in high school and also prepare students for success in college and future careers,” he says.

After seeing COBRA in action, three young women from McCallum High School demanded that a women’s group be formed: VOICES or Verbally Outspoken Individuals Creating Empowered Sistas.

Kevin Foster

Dr. Kevin Michael Foster, director of ICUSP, was given the Charles Akins Award by AISD for his work with area schools. 

“No matter what background you came from, no matter what race you are, no matter what culture, you can be heard, you can use your voice to put yourself out there,” says Brooke Brock, a senior at McCallum at the time of her interview. Brock saw the need for a space where students could talk about their day-to-day lives and ways to constructively discuss and tackle challenges.

Students in COBRA and VOICES, by and large, come from difficult backgrounds. Many have a great deal of instability in their lives, and as result several struggle with discipline and with school. Together with a facilitator assigned by ICUSP, they meet voluntarily at school to talk about their lives. And in the case of COBRA, said Winston, “discuss the different opinions on how a brotherhood should be and how we can improve on society as African American and Latino men–or just as men, period.”

“They have such innate leadership qualities–some of them come from really tough situations,” says VOICES coordinator Anjale Welton, a graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin.

Facilitators for both the VOICES and COBRA groups are graduate or undergraduate students, or in several cases, members of the broader Austin community. They come from a wide range of backgrounds, sometimes from backgrounds similar to those of the group members. Facilitators are role models who support the high school students, model brotherhood and women’s empowerment, and help the young students succeed. They are trained by ICUSP and provided a curricular framework, but are expected to get to know their chapter’s members well enough to tailor activities to meet local and individual needs.

According to Welton, in public school students don’t get to make as many choices as in college or beyond; their time is defined for them. VOICES empowers young women by giving them “a space that is their own” and most important, said Welton, “they continue to build on leadership skills of women who are already leaders.”

Welton, a doctoral student in Educational Policy and Planning, provides guidance and constructive criticism, including discussions about how to facilitate activities, manage conflict and run groups.

Middle school students get an early start with COBRA and VOICES chapters at their schools

Middle school students get an early start with COBRA and VOICES chapters at their schools. 

“With each meeting,” she says, “afterward, we sit down and process–how do you think that went? Your tone of voice, the way you projected yourself, do you think you made everyone feel included?”

Although Welton may help students reflect on their sessions, she makes it very clear that the students set the agenda, that they “run the show.”

Thanks in large measure to the programs’ emphasis on personal responsibility, students, teachers and administrators consistently give the programs high marks as a force for positive change. Over the past three years all of the graduating COBRA participants at LBJ High School have gone on to college.

“The guys in the program are doing very well in terms of their academics and their social behavior,” says Patrick Patterson, the principal of LBJ and COBRA co-founder. “We’ve been very successful in taking a demographic that traditionally underperforms and placing them in a position where they can definitely succeed if they continue on the right path.”

Out of 52 seniors in the COBRA and VOICES groups, 48 have been accepted to colleges including the The University of Texas at Austin, the University of Houston, Prairie View University, Texas AandM, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Texas State University, the College of William and Mary and Austin Community College. Little wonder that the demand for the programs is mounting.

What began as a single COBRA group on the LBJ campus has led to an expanded and formalized partnership between ICUSP and AISD. McCallum High School is home to four COBRA groups while LBJ and Reagan high school campuses host two each. Chapters also can be found at Kealing, Pearce, Webb and Martin middle schools. Manor Independent School District, which serves a small but growing community that borders east Austin, initiated its first COBRA group in spring 2009.

One of the challenges ICUSP faces is striking a balance between being proactive and being reactive. ICUSP programs like COBRA and VOICES have been developed in response to community, school and student demands. And they are growing like wildfire because the need is so intense.

VOICES and COBRA students from Austin high schools pose with Dr. Foster

VOICES and COBRA students from Austin high schools pose with Dr. Foster. 

But Dr. Foster wants to be sure that “ICUSP grows programs only as capacity allows” and maintains the integrity of the program. This means conversations with school leaders about the goals and nature of the program and care in selecting students.

Dr. Foster explains, “We look for kids with room for considerable academic growth and with leadership potential–even in cases where that leadership has not been directed positively. We look for average students on low-performing campuses, and help them develop leadership skills that will result in positive futures.”

Due in large part to the leadership skills developed in their groups, participants in VOICES and COBRA see college as just another important step in a larger journey.

The program “has helped me find the person I am,” says Brock, who is headed off to Texas AandM. “I’m a first-generation, low-income student, but all that I’ve gone through doesn’t really show my potential.”

And by facilitating the group, helping it set goals and creating spaces for conflict resolution and college preparation, Brock has found a way not only to become a better, more powerful leader, but also to “give something back. I’m really blessed. I’ve been through a lot,” she says. For her, the ability to give something back is crucial. She wants to let other students know “it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can be successful. You just have to work at it.”