Guest Opinion

Our mayor wants us to know about My Brother’s Keeper, a community challenge to address youth and achievement

By Jonathan Rothschild

With a Congress that has

little use for federal assistance programs, President Obama has had to look for new ways to help Americans who are struggling.

He's issued a number of challenges. Ending veteran homelessness, which Tucson is working on, is one. To date, we've housed 920 formerly homeless veterans—more than halfway toward our goal.

Another is My Brother's Keeper.

Directed at helping boys and young men of color, My Brother's Keeper is a challenge to communities to ensure that all youth can achieve their full potential. I've accepted this challenge on behalf of our community, in partnership with United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona, Tucson Urban League, and the Tucson Chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Private and corporate foundations have pledged more than $294 million to My Brother's Keeper, which sets specific goals for all children to:

1) enter school prepared—cognitively, emotionally, physically, and socially;

2) read at grade level by the end of third grade;

3) graduate from high school.

I'm happy to say that many in Tucson are already working toward these goals. Just this month, Tucson nonprofit Amistades was selected to receive My Brother's Keeper funding—a $50,000 grant from Hispanics in Philanthropy—for their "Ninos Sanos, Hombres Fuertes" workshop series. Topics include "Second Chance to Succeed"—a workshop for educators on alternatives to suspension and expulsion.

Children's path to achievement starts early, and so does the need to keep them on it.

Make Way for Books, another Tucson nonprofit, works to give very young children the skills they need to be ready to learn to read. They recently launched a campaign called "Share Stories. Change Lives. Talk, Sing, Read, Play. Everywhere, Everyday." Children who are sung to, spoken to, and read to, are children who associate words with the world around them. As a result, they're much better prepared for school.

Taking it from there is Reading Seed, a program of Literacy Connects. Their goal is for all students in Pima County to read at or above grade level by the end of third grade—a critical milestone, because those who don't read at grade level by then are much more likely to drop out later on.

Working with the Arizona Daily Star, my office helped recruit more than 600 volunteer reading coaches for Reading Seed—doubling the size of the program. It takes just one hour a week, working one-on-one with struggling readers in grades K-3, and many more volunteers are needed.

Another risk factor for dropping out is attendance.

Starting as early as kindergarten, students who miss just two days of school a month are much less likely to graduate from high school. My office is working with TUSD on a "Count Me In!" initiative, where teachers work with parents to set attendance goals. Children who meet them can win prizes—free admission to a number of local museums and attractions. Incentives like these can really help.

And we're not giving up on those who've already dropped out. TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez and I joined local celebrities, UA athletes, and TUSD staff to knock on doors and talk to students and their families about what they need to graduate. We even woke up a few sleepyheads. While they were surprised to find the mayor and the school superintendent at their door, they appreciated our request for them to get back in school. These walks are having an impact 269 students targeted are back on track to graduation.

Last year, the Arizona Mayor's Education Roundtable released a report with a startling statistic. Over a lifetime, each high school dropout costs society more than half a million dollars. That number reflects lost earnings, increased social and government costs for crime, healthcare, and welfare, and lost tax revenue. Yet elected officials at the state level continue to underfund K-12 education—even though Arizona already ranks at or near the bottom in spending per pupil nationally.

We can't let misplaced priorities at the state level dictate what happens to students at the local level. While nothing can prevent the lack of state funding from having a negative impact—including increasing inequality—we have to find every way we can to support our schools locally, especially those in low- income neighborhoods.

President Obama is on the right track with My Brother's Keeper. United Way's Pima Cradle to Career Partnership, of which I'm a member, held a Cradle to Career Design Institute, bringing business, community, and education leaders together to work on this initiative.

As Arizona's state government unloads more responsibilities onto local communities, it's more important than ever that we work together to give all our children opportunities to succeed in school, at work, and in life. Help by volunteering, or donating, but help as you can. Our children—and our future—depend on it.

Jonathan Rothschild is mayor of Tucson.

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