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Am I my brother's keeper? The President wishes we all would be.

Of all the inspiring vignettes shared today at a Drew Charter School panel on President Obama's My Brother’s Keeper initiative, Morehouse College freshman Jevian Gudger's experience will likely stick with students in the audience.

Accepted to Morehouse, the Washington, D.C., teen said his family told him he wouldn't be able to attend the Atlanta college because of the cost. Gudger bought a ticket on a Megabus and arrived in Atlanta at 2 in the morning. He waited at Morehouse for the administrative offices to open to plead his case for financial aid. He presented his case effectively, saying, "I ended up getting $20,000 for each year.”

Obama launched My Brother's Keeper in 2014 to address the troubling educational and life outcomes of black and Hispanic males. Panelist Michael D. Smith, special assistant to the President and senior director of cabinet affairs for My Brother’s Keeper, shared some of the distressing statistics that prompted Obama's involvement:

•One in two young black men grew up without dads in the home.

•Eighty percent of black and Latino boys were not reading at grade level in third grade, the year when learning to read has to broaden to reading to learn.

•Black boys were 6 percent of the nation's population, but almost half of the nation's murder victims.

"Our economy will fall apart if we continue to write you off," Smith told the boys in the audience. "We've got to do everything we can so young people who look like you know they have clear pathways to success."

James Cole Jr. of the U.S. Department of Education said he grew up in poverty -- food stamps and no lights when the power bill wasn't paid.  He embraced education because "I just didn't want to be poor." A law degree and impressive legal career lifted him out of poverty into a New York brownstone, an Atlanta condo, a Land Rover and an office with a private bathroom, he said.

"I am just as happy as a person can possibly be. I can assure you it is all because of education," said Cole, who, in January, became the USDOE's chief operating officer and chief legal officer, overseeing a range of operational, management, policy, legal and program functions including My Brother's Keeper Task Force.

(The loudest applause from students erupted after Cole, in response to a boy's question about standardized testing, said, "We believe there is generally too much testing.")

The federal officials on the panel touted the benefits of participating in My Brother's Keeper, such as finding adult mentors. The equally important message for kids -- underscored by Gudger's comments -- is the role of personal drive and perseverance.

Guidance and opportunity are wasted if students don't step up. For example, many students tell me they want to be journalists. Although I routinely encourage aspiring writers to send me possible columns, few follow through with submissions. I've also talked to business owners who partnered with schools to mentor students but the teens didn't show up for meetings or missed work.

This is not unique to poor kids; plenty of middle-class kids squander opportunity even when gift-wrapped by their parents or their parents' social networks and delivered to their doorstep.

Gudger stressed to the Drew students they can influence their futures, no matter what anyone else contends. Long told he lacked a knack for math, Gudger said he had a C on the midterm, but ended up with an A minus.

His parting comment to Drew students is good advice for all kids: "Don't let anybody determine your fate. You determine your fate."



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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.