SCHENECTADY — The auditorium of Mont Pleasant Middle School was full of youthful exuberance Tuesday as dozens of students joined city and state officials in an effort to gain community support for the My Brother’s Keeper program.
Started in 2018 with the help of a group of Union College students, the program aims to bolster graduation rates, address opportunity gaps and ensure long-term success for young men of color through a series of mentorship programs that provide students a pathway towards success. Former president Barack Obama launched the nationwide program in 2014.
After four years of trying to get the program off the ground, an effort hampered by the pandemic, the city and school district are now seeking to rally community support needed to get the program recognized by the state’s Department of Education, a move that would unlock new opportunities for participants.
“I got here in July and what I found was a community that was eager to work together to support its most precious resource: the children of Schenectady,” said Superintendent Anibal Soler.
Soler and Mayor Gary McCarthy began the process of gaining state recognition in January by sending a joint letter to the education department expressing interest in becoming recognized. The department recognizes 31 programs in communities across the state, including Yonkers and Buffalo.
The effort appears to have wide community support, with dozens of community leaders, including Police Chief Eric Clifford, McCarthy, City Council and Board of Education members, attending Tuesday’s event.
A community action plan must now be developed and a data review, including statistics on graduation rates, must be compiled and submitted to the state in order to gain recognition.
The plan must include input from community stakeholders and detail how the program will help achieve the various milestones laid out as part of the My Brother’s Keeper program, including ensuring students are prepared to enter school and can read at grade level by third grade.
Graduating high school, completing a post secondary education or job training, successfully entering the workforce and ensuring kids stay on track while in the program are also milestones for the program.
A series of meetings have been scheduled in March to gain input from residents and other stakeholders. A final plan will be submitted sometime in early July and approval should be handed down later in the summer if all the criteria is met.
Currently the program relies on peer-to-peer mentorship and group discussions to engage children. Older students mentor their younger peers, who then go on to mentor younger generations as they grow with the program.
Around 30 students participate in the program, but efforts are underway to bolster enrollment.
Carlos Catto, assistant superintendent of innovation, equity and engagement for the district, said the program is about changing the narrative for young men of color, who have lower graduation rates than their white counterparts and higher rates of suspension and dropouts.
Schenectady is no different, with Black and Hispanic students graduating at a rate of 74% and 68%, respectively in 2020, according to state data. White students in the district had a graduation rate of 77% that same year.
The disparities were even greater in 2019, prior to the pandemic, which dramatically altered state mandates when it comes to graduation. Just 64% of Black students and 66% of Hispanic students graduated that year, compared to 70% of their white peers.
“As we change this narrative, we want to go with less likely to be expelled or expelled from school, less likely to drop out, more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to be unemployed, imprisoned or to die at an early age,” Cotto said.
Nate Dale, a senior at Schenectady High School who has been involved with the program since its inception, credits the My Brother’s Keeper mentorship for providing him confidence in life and connecting him with his current friend group, who he said have had a tremendous impact on him.
“This program has taught me so much,” he said. “I’ve become confident in what I want to do in life.”
Trey Tillman, another high school senior enrolled with the program for four years, echoed similar sentiments, adding that he hopes that one day the students in the room have an opportunity to become like the public officials who gathered for the presentation.
“MBK made me realize my true voice, and I love to speak now and I love to sit here in front of all these important people and all these kids and tell them that your voice really does matter. You just got to put forth the effort to believe in yourself and to believe in other people to believe in you,” Tillman said.
Brian Ledbetter, who oversees the city’s MBK program, said the program is creating a pathway for success for those who may not have known otherwise. He’s hoping to expand the program in the future to include as many as possible.
Plans are in place to implement a “cradle-to-college and career” program that would include 3- and 4-year-olds. Monthly support meetings are also being scheduled for students and families at elementary schools across the district and a pair of STEAM camps have been scheduled for February and April breaks.
“Seeing the faces here reinforces the level of buy-in that there is in the city,” Ledbetter said. “I believe now the kids seeing that is like adding some extra fuel to motivate them to continue to do what they’re doing.”
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.