Mayor-President Kip Holden on Friday officially launched an initiative to help black and Latino boys overcome barriers to success in adulthood, focusing on getting them ready for school and reading on grade level by the time they are 8 years old.

“I have faith that in every one of you that you can be successful,” Holden told a group of boys that was gathered in the auditorium of a local truancy center. “But without you believing you can be successful, that will not be possible.”

The launch, which attracted more than 150 people, is part of the federal “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative that seeks to surmount “persistent opportunity gaps and to tear down barriers that too often prevent boys and young men of color and other young people from realizing their potential.”

Among the supporters of the effort is former LSU basketball star and Los Angeles Clippers player Glen “Big Baby” Davis.

“With our young people, there are so many gaps,” Davis said. “This program fills in some of those gaps.”

Baton Rouge is one of more than 200 communities that has accepted the challenge.

Under President Barack Obama’s initiative, businesses, foundations and community groups will coordinate investments to support programs that help keep young people out of the criminal justice system and improve their access to higher education. Several foundations pledged at least $300 million over five years to promote that goal.

For its part, Baton Rouge’s My Brother’s Keeper task force has developed a local action plan laying out initial plans to improve school readiness, which it plans to submit to the White House later this month.

Gail Grover, the mayor’s assistant chief administrative officer, is heading up the task force. She said in all likelihood the task force will seek a grant to help fund aspects of its work but is still determining where additional resources might be needed.

She said the focus on early childhood and elementary reading emerged during a summit the task force held.

“We thought that there would be less redirection of teenagers (into the criminal justice system) if we started with zero to third grade,” Grover said.

Grover noted the city-parish already has programs that aim to help older kids, including the BRAVE program.

The task force plans to focus much of its initial work on early literacy, specifically helping Volunteers In Public Schools and its Everybody Reads program. That program recruits and trains adults who sit down with struggling readers at least once a week to help them learn to read. There are 15 schools targeted, with the goal of finding nearly 400 more VIPS reading friends for children who don’t have adults to read with.

“We know it works. It makes a difference,” said Judy Bethly, executive director of VIPS.