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Can Reforming Barbershops Improve Black Boys' Literacy?

Grad students want to combat black boys' low reading levels by adding books that cater to them to barbershop waiting areas.

(MCT/Angela Peterson/Orlando Sentinel)
Alvin Irby was a first-grade public school teacher in the Bronx when he stumbled on an idea to improve literacy among young black boys. He was getting a haircut at the barbershop across from his school when one of his students walked in with his mother. “He sat down on the couch and stared out the window,” Irby recalled. “After 10 minutes or so, he started jumping around and his mom started getting frustrated … and I kept thinking to myself, ‘He really should be practicing his reading right now.’"

That night, Irby went home and typed up an outline for the nonprofit program he would one day launch, Barbershop Books. Since entering graduate school to earn a master's degree in public administration at New York University (NYU), Irby has stocked six barbershops in the Brooklyn and Harlem with books. Now he's trying to expand the program to more than 250 barbershops within seven years.

The program is designed to be low-maintenance and low-cost. It entails a small wood case with 15 books in the barbershop's seating area. Barbers agree to encourage children to read while they wait. Unlike a library, children cannot check out books, though popular titles do get permanently borrowed, and Irby budgets enough to replace missing books each month. In the future, Irby hopes to hire college or graduate students to help oversee the reading spaces.  

Participating barbershops are located in low-income neighborhoods where more than half of elementary school students are reading below grade level in the local school district. The program targets children between 4 and 8 years old because research suggests that's a critical period for developing literacy. 

Last month, Irby and three classmates from the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service at NYU were finalists in a student policy competition hosted by the University of Pennsylvania and the Governing Institute. While Irby's nonprofit already existed, his teammates helped him develop a fundraising strategy, a campaign strategy and projected annual budgets. The team's proposal is available here

Governing spoke with Irby about the team's proposal and the future of Barbershop Books.

Why the focus on one gender as opposed to young black girls, too?

Girls generally score higher in reading and have much higher levels of reading proficiency than boys, and that’s actually across racial classifications. Black boys in particular consistently perform below other student groups. 

What makes a barbershop a better environment for learning how to read than a public school or a public library?

That’s a good question. Why not libraries? Why not schools? Right now, more than 80 percent of all black boys in 4th grade across the nation and in New York City are not reading proficiently. The traditional approaches, they aren’t working, at least not for this population.

The Barbershop Books program is not a tutoring program. What Barbershop Books is doing is bringing books -- culturally relevant, age appropriate, gender responsive books -- that young black boys would want to read [and] bringing those books where boys are. Barbershops are an important part of the black community and the black culture. In these communities, you pretty much use the same barbers, so over the years, barbers really become like a member of the family.

Your solution goes around some of these traditional government institutions. Should I interpret that as an indictment about the effectiveness of schools and libraries in teaching literacy?

Schools are tasked with the job of educating children. That’s how our society has conceptualized schools. Yet, more than 80 percent of black boys are not reading at grade level, and ... [as you] move further through schools, the rates actually become worse.

I was a teacher and I taught my boys to read, but I also recognize that there are significant challenges that are outside of the school. Did schools create poverty? Are schools deciding how districts are drawn? There are a lot of structural issues that make schools less about transforming the lives of children and more about reproducing the social and economic stratification that already exists in society.

Early education reformers viewed schools as this place that can level the playing field, as this place where regardless of your zip code or family, having access to a public school makes it so that where you come from doesn’t dictate where you go. The reality is that all too often, schools simply reproduce whatever inequalities already exist.

Would Barbershop Books engage public librarians or school teachers?

We already have. [When] we conducted a few reading events in barbershops, we created flyers and distributed them to local schools in the area and to local libraries. We also collected library card applications from the library and distributed them at the event.

What’s been the reception at schools?

We reached out to the parent coordinators, principals and assistant principals. There is definitely support for this type of work in communities. Teachers, principals, they get it. They know that reading for fun outside of schools is essential for students to progress in terms of their reading achievement.

What would be different about a literacy program in a barbershop as opposed to a library or school?

I’m convinced that there’s a significant number of black boys who don’t associate reading with being black. I want you to take a moment and ponder this question: What does it mean for millions of black boys to never see a black male reading? Never. We don’t have black male teachers. Less than 2 percent of American teachers are black males and that’s across the board, all grades. If you get down to the critical reading period, pre-k to third grade, it’s less. If you look at the high rates of single-parent households where mothers are the primary adult figure in boys’ lives, then we add another layer. So we have a situation where millions of black boys, thousands here in New York City, never see [an adult] black male engage with books.

It doesn’t mean that they can’t be engaged by books. Many of the things that interest boys, and black boys in particular, are not the type of material chosen in many early childhood classrooms. There’s been research to show that boys prefer books with a male main character and that are action-oriented. Many early childhood classrooms don’t use reading materials that reflect their reading preferences.

*CORRECTION: Barbershop Books currently operates in Harlem and Brooklyn. An earier version incorrectly stated that it was in the Bronx. 

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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