Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Last month, President Obama launched “My Brother’s Keeper,” a promising, new initiative to help “every boy and young man of color who is willing to do the hard work to get ahead.”

As part of his announcement for the initiative, the president highlighted early learning, touching on research on the early vocabulary gap, kindergarten readiness, and third grade reading proficiency.

For Obama, the initiative is personal. At the event launching the initiative, the president talked about growing up without a father and about his own poor choices, including drug use and taking school less seriously than he could have.

“The only difference is that I grew up in an environment that was a little more forgiving,” the president said. He had the support of his mother and grandparents as well as encouragement from a community that gave him second and third chances. “They never gave up on me. And so I didn’t give up on myself.”

Joining the president is a group of foundations that have united to support the new initiative. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies, Bloomberg Philanthropies, The California Endowment, the Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Kapor Center for Social Impact, the Open Society Foundations, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation — have made a $150 million commitment to “My Brother’s Keeper,” and they will be working over the next three months to design a strategy and infrastructure for these investments.

The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Schott Foundation for Public Education also strongly supports the new initiative. For nearly a decade the Schott Foundation has raised awareness about the impact of the achievement gap on black males and has targeted its funding to increase opportunities and improve educational outcomes for young men of color.

Developing Policies and Best Practices

“The data proves it: Boys and young men of color — regardless of where they come from — are disproportionately at risk from their youngest years through college and the early stages of their professional lives,” the initiative’s website explains.

“By the time they hit fourth grade, 86 percent of African American boys and 82 percent Hispanic boys are reading below proficiency levels — compared to 54 percent of white fourth graders reading below proficiency levels.”

The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading’s website provides additional data on these outcomes.

To address this challenge, Obama is creating an even bigger community than the one he had. Building on work that communities are already doing, the president is calling on businesses and foundations to provide more opportunities for young men of color.

“That starts by using proven tools that expand opportunity at key moments in the lives of these young people,” according to the initiative’s fact sheet. “The President believes this includes ensuring access to basic health, nutrition, and to high-quality early education to get these kids reading and ready for school at the youngest age.”

Tracking Progress and Sharing Stories

The president established a My Brother’s Keeper Task Force that will monitor outcomes and share best practices as well as creating a public website that will be maintained by the U.S. Department of Education. In addition, the White House is encouraging community leaders and practitioners to share their stories about working with boys of color and creating opportunity for disadvantaged youth.

We look forward to seeing the My Brother’s Keeper initiative in action. The president’s inclusion of early education and reading proficiency is a promising signal that the initiative will elevate the bar for all children by starting in their earliest years.