Literacy program is a cut above

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By Noell Wolfgram Evans

Staff Writer

Alvin Irby, (left) the founder of Barbershop Books, is pictured here with Columbus City Councilman Shannon Hardin.

Is there a more trusted community figure than the barber? After all, we place our appearance in their hands.

Their shop has traditionally been a safe place to meet up with old neighbors and make new friends. The barbershop is in effect a neighborhood inside of the community. If you’re looking to make a difference in the city, enlisting a barber’s help would be a good first step.

Keisha Hunley-Jenkins, the senior director of student mentoring initiatives for the Columbus City School District, was aware that there was room for improvement in the overall literacy of male students in the district.

“Over 85 percent of African-American males are not reading proficient by the fourth grade,” she said.

There is not a “quick fix” way to lower that number which is why she became intrigued when she met Alvin Irby, the self-titled chief reading inspirer. Irby had a program that was dedicated to attacking that literacy problem in a very achievable way – he was focused on providing examples of positive reading. If he could do that, and in turn help kids become more active readers, those literacy numbers could correct themselves.

On this idea, the Barbershop Books program was launched. When Hunley-Jenkins discovered Irby’s program at the SXSW Conference three years ago, she knew it was the type of thing that could have an impact in Columbus. When she returned to the city, with the backing of Columbus City Council member Shannon Hardin, she got the OK to make the city the first school district to participate in the program.

At the start of the 2016 school year, 10 barbershops became official members of the Barbershop Books program. Each shop received a curated selection of 15 books that barbers could encourage young men (and their family members) waiting for haircuts to pick up and read. Each barber undergoes a training program so that they can discuss key points from each book with a reader in the hopes that it will begin to foster a love of reading and sharing stories.

Hunley-Jenkins said that there are definitely a few favorites right now in the reading pile including, “No, David!,” “The Captain Underpants” series, and “Lego Ninjago.”

“They are trying to get students to self-identify as readers,” Hunley-Jenkins said of the barber’s role.

As the second year of the program begins, its success is evident. There are now 30 shops participating. On the Westside those include Style Masters, Good Life Barbershop, and Stew’s Barbershop. Along with that initial book set (which is provided by Irby’s organization), the district is now able to provide shops with 10 additional books. Books are also refreshed throughout the year.

Barber Lamont Evans of the Unique Image Barber and Beauty Salon, has been involved with the program from its pilot phase and has been amazed at the “tremendous enthusiasm from the kids and their families.”

“This is a somewhat unconventional approach to get kids to read,” Evans said, “but I’m thankful that the city recognized that barbershops can be utilized in this way.”

An evaluation process is part of the program to measure its impact on the improvement of participant’s literacy skills. While that evaluation is still underway in the city, Hunley-Jenkins believes that at its core, the program is doing what it was created to do – fostering a new generation of readers, one haircut at  time.

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