Bar­ber­shop Books spreads new lit­er­acy through age-old en­clave

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PROFILES - LARA JO HIGHTOWER

The na­tional web­site of the Bar­ber­shop Books or­ga­ni­za­tion reports a star­tlingly dis­tress­ing statis­tic: Ac­cord­ing to the United States Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion, says the group, 85 per­cent of African-Amer­i­can fourth-grade stu­dents are not pro­fi­cient in read­ing.

Lo­cal ac­tivist D’An­dre Jones read this statis­tic and, with the North­west Arkansas Demo­cratic Black Cau­cus, was in­spired to part­ner with the na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion to pro­mote lit­er­acy among young African-Amer­i­can and His­panic males in North­west Arkansas.

“We want to bring this pro­gram to the south­ern part of the coun­try, be­cause there is very lit­tle push for pro­grams that pro­mote lit­er­acy in this form,” says Jones. “And we know that bar­ber­shops are a ma­jor con­duit of in­for­ma­tion, his­tor­i­cally, in the African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity.”

Bar­ber­shop Books, first de­vel­oped in Har­lem, N.Y., is a com­mu­nity-based pro­gram that works to cre­ate child-friendly read­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties in neigh­bor­hood bar­ber­shops.

“It’s a very ef­fec­tive pro­gram,” says Jones. “These young men are fall­ing in love with read­ing. What hap­pens is that it trans­lates over into school progress. We know that lit­er­acy is an in­te­gral part of our lives, and this pro­gram pro­motes a life­long love of read­ing.”

Jones says that the lo­cal pro­gram will be aimed at young boys, ages 4 to 8.

“One of the things that the NWA Demo­cratic Black Cau­cus has con­sis­tently done is we have had a com­mit­ment to ad­dress­ing ed­u­ca­tional in­equities,” says Jones. “And since less than 5 per­cent of chil­dren’s books pub­lished in 2014 were about peo­ple of color, less then 2 per­cent of the teach­ers in the United States are black males and be­cause of what has hap­pened in our na­tion’s his­tory, we thought it was

im­por­tant to cre­ate this op­por­tu­nity for brown and black young men ages 4 to 8 to ben­e­fit the North­west Arkansas area.”

The lo­cal chap­ter of the or­ga­ni­za­tion kicked off the ini­tia­tive with an event last Satur­day at its pi­lot bar­ber shop — Skillz Un­lim­ited Bar­ber Shop in Spring­dale, owned by Phil Ma­son.

“I just think it’s im­por­tant, es­pe­cially for the age groups of these kids, to feed their brains and give them an op­por­tu­nity to read more in­stead of play­ing with their gad­gets,” says Ma­son. Ma­son says that in his nearly 20 years in the busi­ness, see­ing kids read­ing has be­come more and more rare. “I see more kids on their phones and tablets and de­vices, ab­so­lutely. I can count on one hand the kids that I’ve seen with a book.

“I think this will help with the lit­er­acy prob­lem in the United States,” con­tin­ues Ma­son. “Of course, one kid at a time. What bet­ter place than a bar­ber­shop, with male role mod­els that the kids can read to?”

Ma­son says that his bar­ber­shop will have a des­ig­nated read­ing room with a bookshelf full of books. One bar­ber will have a sta­tion in the room, and the par­tic­i­pat­ing kids will have the op­tion to read to them­selves or out loud, to the bar­ber.

“We’re work­ing with the bar­bers to make sure that these stu­dents have in­cen­tives to read,” says Jones.

“An ice cream cone from Sonic, an ac­tion fig­ure, points to earn a free hair­cut … We plan to be in­no­va­tive with the in­cen­tive plan as well.”

Ma­son says that he

hopes he can help ex­pand the pro­gram in the area.

“They’re us­ing me as a pi­lot, and I’m in touch with a lot of bar­bers in the area,” he says. “Hope­fully, we can get this pro­gram in ev­ery

bar­ber­shop in the North­west Arkansas area, and then the state. It needs to be in ev­ery bar­ber­shop in the area, for sure.”

Jones says he is also look­ing for ways to ex­pand into the Arkansas Delta and sug­gests that learn­ing labs might be a goal in the near fu­ture.

“They would not only get the op­por­tu­nity to read, but get the op­por­tu­nity to do home­work as well,” he says.

“The North­west Arkansas com­mu­nity has wel­comed this pro­gram with open arms,” says Jones. “I’m re­ally ex­cited about it, be­cause we see what’s go­ing on in the rest of the na­tion and other parts of the coun­try, and for North­west Arkansas to em­brace this op­por­tu­nity to work to­wards ad­dress­ing ed­u­ca­tional in­equities is phe­nom­e­nal.”

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/ANDY SHUPE

Kedrick Green, 7, of Spring­dale re­acts to the tickle of the clip­pers as he has his hair cut by Phillip Ma­son, owner of Skillz Un­lim­ited Bar­ber Shop, in the kids’ read­ing room in his bar­ber shop in Spring­dale. The Bar­ber­shop Books room fea­tures a kid-sized bar­ber chair as well as books and sev­eral chairs for sit­ting and read­ing.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/ANDY SHUPE

D’An­dre Jones of the North­west Arkansas Demo­cratic Black Cau­cus pauses in­side the chil­dren’s read­ing room at Skillz Un­lim­ited Bar­ber Shop in Spring­dale.

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