About 30 teen boys wearing crisp white, button-down shirts tucked into jeans or dress pants stood shoulder to shoulder.
Then it began: Men stood face to face with the youngsters as they tied the boys’ neckties.
“This is symbolic of you being tied to greatness,” Phil Andrews, president of the Long Island African-American Chamber of Commerce, told them in front of a crowd attending a Youth Empowerment Breakfast at the Brentwood Union Free School District headquarters Saturday.
The event marked about 40 ninth-grade boys completing the district’s first year of My Brother’s Keeper, a program launched in October to increase academic and social outcomes for male students through mentorship, leadership development and college exposure.
The program grew out of the nationwide effort that President Barack Obama launched in 2014 to address the challenges facing boys and young men of color.
The breakfast was attended by about 150 people, including students’ families, district staff and board members, legislators, and state Board of Regents member-at-large Lester Young, a leading advocate for establishing My Brother’s Keeper in New York.
Bay Shore resident Ezequiel Diaz, 14, joined Brentwood’s My Brother’s Keeper program to meet new people, he said.
“I learned responsibility. I learned how to talk to people that I don’t know,” he said.
Last year, Brentwood was awarded a $300,000 My Brother’s Keeper grant from the New York State Department of Education for a five-year initiative, said Monique Darrisaw-Akil, assistant superintendent for secondary education.
It included a partnership with Stony Brook University School of Health Technology and Management and a West Islip-based nonprofit, Youth Enrichment Services, whose staff visited Brentwood weekly to help lead academic, career readiness and social skills sessions with the My Brother’s Keeper students, she said.
The program started with 60 ninth-graders, whose only requirement to participate was to commit to attending the sessions three days a week after school.
“Sometimes the students who are in the middle [academically] don’t have a program that would speak to them, so this was really open to everyone,” Darrisaw-Akil said.
Of the 19,052 students in the district in the 2016-17 school year, 83 percent were Hispanic or Latino, 32 percent were English language learners and 88 percent were economically disadvantaged, according to state education department data.
The graduation rate was 72 percent in 2017, compared to 88 percent for Suffolk County.
In My Brother’s Keeper, boys learned about careers in health and science, and personal and career skills, such as stress management, resume writing, public speaking and problem-solving.
They also visited Stony Brook to work with college men who are students of color, and in the spring, the boys visited the Washington, D.C., area to tour universities.
“They loved it. They’re really interested in being exposed to different elements of college readiness and life readiness,” said Marley Solomon, a Stony Brook education specialist.
During the breakfast Saturday, the students received white lab coats embroidered with “My Brother’s Keeper” from Stony Brook.
Students are applying personal skills learned, such as character-building, in their daily interactions, said Joseph Beauchamp, a science teacher who was the program’s head instructor.
In the next school year, 45 My Brother’s Keeper slots will be open for sophomores and 60 for freshmen.
After three years, the district will assess its effectiveness in improving participants’ school performance, Darrisaw-Akil said.