On a recent day in February, students and staff at Webb Middle School gathered eagerly in the school's library. Every month, the 30 or so sixth-graders are joined by their mentors in the My Brother's Keeper program, aimed at students considered chronically absent.
For February's event, the group brought their lunches and then decorated cupcakes with a variety of nearly fluorescent-colored frostings and sprinkles.
"I like to see my kiddos outside of a learning environment," said teacher Lauren Hernandez of her mentee, Lizseth Santa Cruz.
Webb is one of nine Austin ISD campuses that are part of the national My Brother's Keeper program, an initiative launched by former President Barack Obama.
The program was designed to help support boys and young men of color; AISD extends that support to girls and young women.
Webb Principal Raul Sanchez—himself a mentor to a dozen students, including one in the MBK program—said mentorship is a deep part of the school's culture.
“Mentorship makes us stronger as a school. Building organic and authentic relationships beyond the program is our culture at Webb," he said. "This is what makes Webb students successful in the program."
Webb's monthly social events are in addition to the three weekly check-ins for all mentors and students. The check-ins are designed to be positive interactions, Sanchez said.
“Rather than imposing a consequence for a student’s absence, the mentor lets the student know she is missed at school,” he said.
Sanchez and program organizers said that, of the MBK schools in the district, Webb has seen the greatest effect on student attendance.
Hayli Devlin said she likes the MBK program and has fun with her mentor, art teacher Michael Geer, because the pair doesn't discuss just school or attendance.
"I can tell him what's going on in my family. I can trust him," Hayli said. "And he is really smart and funny, and he makes really cool art."
Geer said he knows firsthand how important a mentor can be in a student's life.
"I could have used a mentor, big time. That's why it's exciting for me," Geer said.
Sanchez said the reasons for chronic absences are many, including students and their families living in the motels along I-35 or students having incarcerated parents. Some students live just close enough to walk, though their path is not an easy one, he said.
"Some of them are crossing two highways or catching three [city] buses," he said. "One-third of them live in a home where the head of household is a mom who works two jobs. They wake their children at 5:30 in the morning and then trust that they'll walk to school."
He said the program offers a way for students and teachers to connect and to develop relationships that help students overcome some of these hurdles and get to school.
"Getting them here is the first of many challenges for students," he said. But once they're at Webb, he said, "They know we're always here to support them, inside and outside of school.”