A city-school partnership brought reading materials to children at 30 city locations. The goal: boosting early literacy.

Keisha Hunley-Jenkins, senior director of student mentoring initiatives for Columbus City Schools, was attending the SXSW education conference in March 2016 when she heard about Barbershop Books. It didn't take her long to decide that the early-literacy program would be a good fit in Central Ohio.

The Harlem-born initiative, which has spread to 14 states, creates child-friendly spaces in community barbershops, where young learners are encouraged to read in an already-familiar setting with adults they know and trust.

“Within the African-American community, but also true across all communities in the city, the barbershop is one of those places where young and old come together,” said John Stanford, interim superintendent of Columbus City Schools. “They discuss everything from sports to politics to family issues to what's going on in the neighborhood. Young and old are coming together and able to share their love for reading, able to talk about what they're reading, have a conversation about information that's in the book.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 85 percent of African-American fourth-grade boys are not proficient in reading. Hunley-Jenkins said these students are more likely to be reluctant readers in part because they aren't around adult readers who look like them—either at home or in the community. For instance, she said, less than 2 percent of public school teachers are males of color. While lack of emphasis on reading isn't universal, Hunley-Jenkins said, for many students, “They're just not seeing it happen a lot in their homes or a lot of places where they frequent. It's not a part of their culture they see often.”

Barbershop Books targets children ages 4-8, a critical window for literacy and comprehension skill development. The program provides access to reading materials and positive, encouraging community role models—factors research shows can help increase the time children read for fun.

To bring the program to Columbus, Hunley-Jenkins enlisted the support of then-Superintendent Dan Good and City Councilman Shannon Hardin. The school district and council partnered on a pilot rollout in 2016, splitting the first-year investment of about $9,500. The budget provided 10 sites with 15 books each, along with shelving, replacement books and training from program founder Alvin Irby to help barbers facilitate reading and discussion within their shops.

Desmand Chapman, better known as Des the Barber, owns Cut Masters on Cleveland Avenue in the Linden neighborhood. His shop was one of the initial participants, and he welcomed the chance to provide reading materials to young customers with no out-of-pocket cost.

Chapman said on any given day, between 20 and 50 kids might open one of the books in his shop. “Right away, without even asking, they just go to them,” he said. “Some of the parents don't have much time to take time out and read due to work and stuff like that. So if you can come to the barbershop, have the parents reading with them, they get some time to do that.”

The barber starts conversations with youngsters who may need a nudge. “I'll say, ‘Go get a book. Tell me what it's about.' ” Most kids, however, already gravitate toward the books and love to talk about them without prompting.

The program's curated selection of books includes titles designed to feature and engage young males, including “The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats, a picture book that features a young male of color experiencing the joys of a first snowfall. The book “No, David!”is a particular hit with the elementary-aged boys who peruse the shelves at Chapman's shop.

After a successful pilot phase, Barbershop Books expanded in fall 2017 and now includes 30 locations; the district and city split the $30,000 cost. Sites are evaluated monthly, and the program is renewed and funded on an annual basis. Council and school officials plan to continue the initiative and are eyeing further expansion tied to potential grant money. Organizers also are exploring other funding options, such as sponsorship of sites.

Hunley-Jenkins said Barbershop Books is one of several strategies Columbus City Schools has adopted to create reading opportunities outside school and help students develop a lifelong love of reading. Test scores indicate these efforts are beginning to bear fruit, she said. “We can say that from our student data, we've seen definite progress with our students. Roughly 92 to 93 percent of students who are in third grade have been promoted. That was not the case when we first started with the third-grade guarantee,” Hunley-Jenkins said.

For its part, Barbershop Books seems to have inspired many young readers to grab something from the shelves each day—continuing the long barbershop tradition of gathering, reading and discussing what the world has to offer.

“I've got memories of going to the barbershop with my dad,” Stanford said. “There were always magazines, Jet, Ebony magazine, and always a newspaper in the barbershop. I would always read those magazines or newspaper while waiting, emulating the men in the barbershop reading them as well. This program brought back a lot of those memories of going to the barbershop when I was a kid.”

For more information, go to barbershopbooks.org.