When the Obama administration launched the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative in 2014, many people had questions about what the program was designed to do. Who would it target? How would it be funded? What exactly would the combination of public-private partnerships achieve? Who would oversee its progress?
Two years later, the initiative is involved in nearly 250 communities across all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. It has received more than $600 million in private sector and philanthropic grants and in-kind resources, and $1 billion in low-interest financing. The funding is used to support the president’s objective of helping corporations, foundations and government agencies to create “pathways from cradle to college and career,” especially for young men of color. In April, New York became the first state to fund a statewide expansion of the MBK initiative via a $20 million appropriation.
“Whenever an opportunity arises to empower young men of color, ... I think it's imperative that as superintendent, I move heaven and earth to avail such initiatives to them,” said Sunflower (MS) County Consolidated Schools Superintendent Dr. Debra Dace, who called the program’s interventions a “welcomed ally in the battle to remove barriers from our young people.”
But what many don’t realize, said James Cole, Jr., general counsel delegated duties of the U.S. deputy secretary of education, is the initiative’s focus is not limited to boys and/or students of color.
My Brother’s Keeper is about “lifting and helping all groups, including girls and young women of color, students with disabilities” and generally “all groups that are facing opportunity gaps,” Cole said.
The initiative is aimed around six key readiness milestones: ensuring all students enter school ready to learn; helping them to read on grade level by third grade; focusing on graduating students from high school ready for college and career; pushing the completion of some sort of postsecondary education or training; ensuring they successfully enter the workforce; and reducing violence and providing a second chance.
In many ways, Cole is the embodiment of why MBK was created. He grew up on the south side of Chicago, in what he said was “a fairly tough neighborhood” and “a fairly tough upbringing.” Cole attended the University of Illinois, which he says he would not have even considered if not for the influence of a high school English teacher.
“When I was 14, my mother passed away from a heart attack,” said Cole, who described his father’s work as “seasonal” and said the family was “on and off food stamps from time to time.”
A few weeks after his mother’s passing, just as Cole was starting high school, he was robbed at gunpoint, he said.
His father later developed Alzheimer’s disease, and as the eldest of three children, Cole said he “had the responsibility of really taking care of the family.”
Strong teachers make a difference
Cole knows firsthand the importance of having good teachers in the classroom to the overall success of students in a school.
“There are times in a child’s life where if you get involved, there’s evidence that” you can really make a difference in the outcome of that child’s life, he said.
Cole said a high school English teacher “really had a profound impact on my life. [She] not only mentored me in her class and made English exciting and fun,” he said, she helped direct him throughout high school.
“When she found out I was only applying to one local college, she really pushed me” to apply to the University of Illinois. “But for her, I would not have attended Illinois at all, and I graduated with honors,” he said. “She just had a profound impact on my life and really had a real role in helping me move from a tough childhood to really becoming who I am today.”
Cole said in addition to high-impact teachers, other adult mentors are critical for student success. Mentors can help curb chronic absenteeism — “if you miss more than 10% of the school year, you’re more likely to drop out,” he said.
But sometimes, it is less tangible. In many cases, Cole said, “having a caring adult just really has a profound impact on giving kids hope,” and modeling successful behaviors. Mentors can offer guidance and “create a spark to learn that would not have been there before.”
“A whole new world of opportunities [can be] opened up,” by the presence of mentors, including just fundamentally “being motivated to learn,” Cole said. “Having a caring adult just show up and have an interest in kids really motivates them” to push themselves to their full potential.
In many successful districts, mentoring organizations are pairing with local schools to bring mentors to “meet three times a week at their school,” Cole said.
In program feedback the department solicited ahead of the two-year mark for MBK, Chris Maher, superintendent of Providence (RI) Public Schools, said a similar mentoring program is “a high-impact model that I highly recommend to others. … It takes existing resources, caring adults already linked to schools, and trains them to help drive student success.”
Increasing community collaboration
Mentors can come from just about anywhere. In Compton, Mayor Aja Brown gathered more than 60 former gang members from rival sets to call for peace in the city. Over half of them have completed a series of leadership development courses, 13 have been hired to participate in the city-funded Gang Intervention Program and the city recorded nearly a 50% decrease in homicides between 2014 and 2015.
These outcomes directly impact students’ ability to learn. Not only do direct environmental factors like the condition of school facilities and the quality of resources available affect student learning, but conditions surrounding their home and community life also have an impact on their ability to retain information and master academic concepts.
Building community-school-government partnerships to address the challenges students face and close the opportunity gap persisting in America today is the underlying premise of MBK.
“This is not a term-limited thing. This is not something that’s going to end with the Obama administration. We’re really excited about all the work that’s going to be done across the agencies,” Cole said.
“When I think about MBK and how it has an incredible commitment to really helping to address the opportunity gaps that a lot of young people face, ... I’m really committed to it,” Cole said, adding, “a lot of the things that we’re focusing on in mbk are things that would have helped me” as a youth.
The focus, he said, is really around a lot of the social-emotional learning, as well as the “whole child” wellness indicators that many experts around the country are recognizing as critical to learning. These include “entering school healthy and ready to learn” and an increased focus on literacy and early learning — I did not participate in early learning programs and could have really benefitted from early learning,” he said.
The benchmark to get all students reading on grade level by third grade is critical for not only assessing literacy, but setting the foundation upon which students learn, said Cole.
“Kids go from learning how to read to reading to learn” in third grade, he said, adding “if you’re not on level by third grade,” students will get left behind across the academic spectrum.
This reading to learn contributes to students’ college and career readiness, which is another key objective.
In Detroit, alignment with the MBK objectives has led the city to begin establishing 15 college and career academies across the district, as well as an increased investment in summer jobs academies to help prepare students in the district for the workplace.
Detroit Public School officials hope by providing career, academic and technical learning through small communities of students, the annual income of the families they’ll eventually head will increase, which will contribute to an economic renewal in the city.
This notion is consistent with the economist view that links student outcomes with the financial vitality of an area.
Interim Superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Alycia Meriweather said the most valuable aspects of the MBK collaboration is the “multi-city collaboration, technical support provided via USDOE and the associated positive outcomes to be realized by the youth we serve in the city of Detroit.”
“This is going to go on, and I’m excited that we’re going to have MBK and MBK-like programs across this country,” said Cole, who emphasized the partnerships are “not term-limited” and “won’t end with the Obama Administration.”