Some members of the Black Male Forum were at risk of exclusion from school and others have been in England for only two years. Previously they earned respect hanging out with "bad boys".
Now they get their kudos speaking publicly on issues that affect their lives - racism, sexual relationships, drugs, politics and crime.
Debate is a compulsory part of the citizenship curriculum and there is an unmistakable buzz in the room when the group of 14 and 15-year-olds at Willesden high, north London, start speaking.
Boys were spellbound as forum president Franklin Asante, 14, from Ghana, spoke about his ambition to earn enough money to care for his grandmother.
Abshir Mohammed, 15, who left Somalia four years ago, has been excluded from Willesden high three times. Since joining the forum he has stayed out of trouble and his English speaking and listening results have jumped two grades. His parents now believe he will make something of his life.
His friend Ahmed Mohammed, 14, was angry and disillusioned when he came to the forum because his friend had been stabbed to death. He wanted to believe that not everyone is racist. Ahmed has stopped associating with a bad crowd and wants to be a politician.
The boys now have ambitions that include going to university and becoming doctors, engineers, pilots and actors.
After five workshops with Toastmasters International coach, Richie Dayo Johnson, they took part in a debating competition before Home Office minister John Denham and financial secretary Paul Boateng, a Brent MP.
Pankaj Gulab, deputy head, said: "We have seen changes in the way they approach conflict and respond to staff. These boys will go into society and be more productive than they might have been."
The BMF project was piloted last year with 12 boys and a pound;50,000 Home Office grant. The initiative, which also offers training in information technology, leadership and management skills, was praised in a National Audit Office report on diversity.
This year, almost 10 per cent of sixth forms are taking part in the English Speaking Union's national schools competitions, the largest entry so far.