Library puts books in barbershops to shrink achievement gap

UPPER MARLBORO, Md. — The achievement gap begins long before the first day of kindergarten, and for students whose reading skills lag, the attempt to catch up can be daunting — and a new program is working to get books in the hands of boys even earlier.

A program launched by the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System aims to attack this achievement gap by getting books into the hands of young boys outside of the school setting. In the Boys, Barbershops and Books program, books specially selected to appeal to boys are placed in five area barbershops.

“This is part of an early literacy effort, but we also want to make sure that boys who are already in school are engaged in reading,” said Michelle Hamiel, chief operating officer for public services at PGCMLS.

By the fourth grade, the average reading scale scores of African-American males in large urban school districts were 28 points lower than the scores of their white male public school peers, according to figures from a 2010 study by the Council of Great City Schools.

The program was launched in the fall of 2015 and targets children as young as 2 years old through elementary school. Hamiel said the barbershop is an important social center for men, and by placing books there, the program sends the signal that reading is a shared activity that is done for fun.

When the library system approached barbershop owners, Hamiel said, they jumped on board.

“They were really delighted,” she said.

Judging by the appearance of some of the books, she said, the program is a big success. She said some of the books are looking worn, which is a good thing.

“It means they’re well-used and well-loved,” Hamiel said.

In some cases, the boys are taking books home to build their own personal collections, she said.

“That means that they fell in love with something they saw in a book and are continuing to enjoy it,” said Hamiel.

Book selection has been an important part of the program’s success, Hamiel said. Research shows that boys like nonfiction, she said. The program also has worked to find books that feature African American characters, such as a series written for young children by filmmaker Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee and a collection by actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith.

Hamiel said the library system has been working toward getting a grant and hopes to expand the program in the coming year.

To learn more about the program, call Hamiel at PGCMLS 301-699-3500.

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