Starting this fall, high school seniors in the Houston Independent School District will have an opportunity to vie for one of 30 golden tickets to a unique higher-education experience.
Teachers, principals and community leaders will get to nominate students to become members of the city’s inaugural “posses” — groups of students from large, urban districts organized by the Posse Foundation, which sends them to elite colleges and universities as a unit to serve as a pre-established peer support network.
The New York-based nonprofit, which has been lauded by the MacArthur Foundation and President Obama, is making its first foray into Texas public schools. In the fall of 2013, 10-student posses will be sent from Houston to three institutions of higher education: Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas.
Tamkinat Firoz, who graduated from Bryn Mawr as part of a posse from Boston, said the students should be prepared for a life-changing experience.
“You make friends in school, you make great friends, but Posse is a family,” Firoz said. “They will see you at your worst, see you at your best, and they will still love you.”
Deborah Bial started the foundation in 1989 after a student told her that he would not have dropped out of college if he had had his “posse” with him. “This was back in the ’80s, when ‘posse’ was a more hip word,” Bial said.
The organization has since grown tremendously, sending more than 4,000 students from eight of the country’s largest cities to about 40 universities. Those students have netted nearly $500 million in scholarships — they receive full-tuition scholarships from their colleges for four years — and have a graduation rate of 90 percent.
Bial said the program is often misunderstood as being created exclusively for minority or low-income students. The foundation hopes to foster diversity of all sorts, she said. To secure an invitation to join a posse, nominees must go through a rigorous interview process that gives extra weight to leadership potential.
Philanthropic organizations have pledged roughly $900,000 to help bring the Posse Foundation to Houston. Bial said she had had her eye on the area for a while because of the city’s diversity as well as interest among community members.
She expects about 500 students to be nominated for the 30 slots in Houston.
Texas A&M, the state’s first public university to sign a partnership with the foundation, will also take in a posse from Atlanta. Karan Watson, the university’s provost, anticipates that the program will have a significant impact.
“With a school as large as us, it might seem like, why are you interested in this small number of students?” she said. “But the reality is, when you can forge a path and create great leaders, it’s going to lead to more great things.”
Firoz, now an eighth-grade teacher in Houston, agreed.
“The schools benefit as much as the students do,” Firoz said. “They get a great group of kids who probably wouldn’t have gone there. People in Posse are all change agents. On any campus, they are going to make a difference.”