Belive, Achieve, Succeed

November 3, 2011  


By Brooks Igo

Morning lyceum at the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy (photo by Brooks Igo/Beyond the Bubble staff).

Naomi Jones, sitting down in an Eastfield College lounge, wearing a black and white flowered shirt and an easy smile, remembers driving her son Charles home to Mesquite from school one day. She was muttering to herself about the rising gas prices when she said her son said something profound that she’ll never forget.

“He said ‘one day this is all going to pay off,’”said Jones, an Eastfield student. Jones realized then that all the extra time she puts in to guarantee that her son gets an excellent education is worth it.

Charles, 13, is an 8th grader at the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy and embodies the confidence this magnet school is attempting to nurture and develop. The Obama Academy, the first all-boys school in the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) and the first all-boys public school in Texas, opened this year and has a current enrollment of 190 students from 6th to 9th grade. The school plans to add a grade each year until there is a 12th grade.

Because it is a magnet school, there is an application process. Every student is required to have a minimum grade average of 80, take a math test, write an essay, and interview with Principal Nakia Douglas. Students living in Dallas make up 70 percent of the current enrollment, while 30 percent come from as far as Plano.

The Obama Academy, located on 4730 S. Lancaster Road in Dallas, sits between the Dallas VA Medical Center and an older apartment complex. The DART runs no more than 50 feet from the front entrance to the school.

Lew Blackburn, President of the DISD Board of Trustees, said the district intentionally decided to build the school in a neighborhood that could use a boost. The hope, he said, is for the Obama Academy to give the community a school as prestigious as St. Marks School of Texas or Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas.

Community leaders and parents have high expectations for the Obama Academy that go beyond providing an excellent education. Parents want to see their children challenged not only academically, but also holistically to become better husbands, fathers, brothers, and community leaders.

“I want it to bring out some of the awesomeness that he has, to challenge him, to make him be the next whoever,” said Rose Hill, whose son George is a 7th grader.

Hill said the expectations she has for her son start with Principal Douglas, who she describes as “dressed to impress: suited and booted, no tennis shoes, ties, pull up your pants, get ready and be eager, not normal, but extraordinary.”

Principal Douglas, who graduated from Dallas’ Lincoln High School, says he is committed to building a global society for tomorrow. He has visited and developed relationships with schools like Episcopal School of Dallas, Jesuit, and St. Marks to learn from their most effective practices and give him innovative ideas to engage the students at the Obama Academy.

“The goal is building a culture that lasts beyond our lifetimes,” he said.

It’s a culture built on accountability and belief. Douglas has the students address each other by “Brother” followed by their name. This is an intentional effort by Douglas to create a sense of “brotherhood” and accountability amongst the students. The students are asked to share each other’s successes and failures.

When a visitor to the Obama Academy walks into a classroom, a student will promptly get up to introduce himself and explain what he’s learning that day and how he’s applied it. The students wear uniforms of navy blazers, gray slacks, and ties.

The Obama Academy, inspired by the success of Irma Rangel Academy, the first all-girls school in Texas, offers a dynamic curriculum that includes robotics, Mandarin, Latin, and Spanish courses. The school already has a partnership with Yubei Middle School in Chonqing, China, and is working on a partnership with a school in Taiwan. In two years, the students will have the opportunity to study abroad.

Community leaders like Kevin Mondy, who is one of the founders of Project Still I Rise, understand the importance of community and parent involvement with the school.

“It’s going to take the community to give it [the Obama Academy] legs to walk,” he said.

Project Still I Rise, a nonprofit agency founded in 2002, provides several programs to train future community leaders and expose young men to the importance and opportunities of education. Several of the students at the Obama Academy are involved in Mondy’s organization. Mondy says their participation in Project Still I Rise should make the transition to the Obama Academy seamless.

One of the opportunities Project Still I Rise provides is to take students on to college campuses. Mondy said when a kid visits a college it increases his or her chances to go to college by 35 percent.

Tracy Williams, whose son is a 7th grader at the Obama Academy and involved with Mondy’s Project Still I Rise, says getting her son and his friends excited about continuing their education is all about exposure. She was encouraged by a recent conversation she had with her son, Nickalas Lampkin, about where he was going to get his master’s degree.

“It’s not a matter of if you’re going to college, it’s when and where,” said Williams, who graduated from Lamar University in Beaumont.

All of the excitement of the Obama Academy hasn’t come without its challenges, however. In response to cuts to state education, for instance, the school has worked with a student to teacher ratio of 1-to-21, instead of a more ideal ratio of 1-to-15. Douglas and the Obama Academy have minimized the damage by creating what he calls “hybrid teachers,” or teachers that are teaching 7th, 8th, and 9th grade classes, instead of just one grade.

These limitations faced by the Obama Academy, and schools statewide, emphasize the importance of parental involvement in their children’s education, educators and community leaders say. The Obama Academy requires its students’ parents to sign an agreement upon enrollment that they will participate in at least two school functions during the year.

Charles Jones standing at morning lyceum (photo by Brooks Igo/Beyong The Bubble staff).

Charles recognizes his mom’s commitment to his education. As he walks into the auditorium for the morning’s lyceum, where the students of the Obama Academy gather every morning to harness their focus and recite the school’s motto and song, he reflects on what he said to his mom that day driving back home.

“When I get my degree, I’m going to help her.”

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