Only one out of six high school students in St. Louis goes on to attend a four-year college. When Charli Cooksey took a job in the city as a middle-school teacher with Teach for America, she couldn't stop agonizing over that statistic. "I saw how brilliant my students were and also how limited their opportunities were, and I realized I needed to do so much more to put them on the right path," Cooksey says.
In 2011, Cooksey teamed up with three fellow teachers to found InspireSTL, a community organization in St. Louis that empowers high-potential, underserved scholars. InspireSTL leads its scholars through a rigorous 14-month educational-preparation program before high school, assists them in applying to top high schools and four-year colleges, helps them overcome personal and financial barriers, and teaches leadership to the next generation of activists. In its first four years, InspireSTL has produced real results: Last year, the organization supported 140 students. All its middle schoolers were placed in the region's best high schools, and all its high school seniors were accepted to college.
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Cooksey, who now serves as InspireSTL's director, has a good rapport with students in part because she understands exactly where they're coming from. Except for her time at Prairie View A&M University in Texas, she's lived in predominantly African-American north St. Louis all her life. In 2007, Cooksey's hometown school district lost its accreditation after being classified as low-performing.
Cooksey returned to St. Louis after college because she was determined to "stay and create change within," she says. "There's this huge culture around escaping the 'hood. Getting out and disassociating yourself from the problems that low-income communities of color face is seen as a sign of success. I want to work against that. To see change, we have to stay and fight side by side." Cooksey now lives with her mom on the same block where she grew up, and serves on her school district's board.
Cooksey hopes that InspireSTL "not only helps students evolve into capable adults who have careers but also engaged citizens and leaders." She cites Raymond Stewart, one of InspireSTL's first scholars, as an exceptional student leader who shows what the program can achieve when courageous young people take part. Stewart served successively as his high school's student body secretary, vice president, and president. As a young black male attending a predominantly white private school, Stewart also founded a multicultural awareness club and wrote bold editorials about race relations for his school newspaper. In the wake of Michael Brown's death, Stewart advocated for an open dialogue about race at his school, writing to his peers: "Conversing about the situation will help dissolve the emerging 'us' and 'them' division."
Cooksey says she sees many parallels between Stewart's social justice activism and her own. In response to Brown's killing, Cooksey co-founded the Young Citizens Council of St. Louis, which advocates for "elevating the voice of young people to help those in power understand that black lives matter," she says. Like Stewart, Cooksey received backlash for her efforts and, also like Stewart, she continued her advocacy work despite the naysayers. Cooksey says she and Stewart "serve as each other's inspiration and soundboard."
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