Lead Story West Edition

A CUT ABOVE: New program hopes to improve literacy rates for young black boys

By Dennis J. Freeman

Contributing Writer

COMPTON — Libraries and barbershops don’t usually go together, but that may change if a local barbershop has any voice in the matter.

St. Julian Barbershop was the place to be Oct. 27 as the Los Angeles County Library and Barbershop Books formally introduced a partnership offering free books to young boys between the ages of 4 and 8. The purpose of the free books is to help improve literacy among young black boys.

“We’re really excited about this event,” said Los Angeles County Library Director Skye Patrick. “My staff has been working day and night to get this here in the Los Angeles County area, so we’re thrilled about an opportunity for us to bring literacy to young men of color.

“This is part of our MBK (My Brothers Keeper) program, and we are so excited that these guys said yes. We have 10 barbers who said yes. For me, they’re devoted to literacy, and why not? How many times have you been in the barbershop waiting on something to do? This is just an opportunity to maximize that time for these young boys.”

The event was the kickoff gathering of what will eventually be as many as 10 barbershops in Compton and South Los Angeles participating in the partnership. The end goal is to get young black boys engaged in reading with their favorite books. What better way to do that than at the local barbershop where there can be lulls of time sitting with nothing to do until your turn comes up for a haircut.

“One of the unfortunate things about Los Angeles County is that young men of color, specifically African-American boys … 50 percent of them are not reading at grade level,” Patrick said. “So, this is one of many programs that we’re doing that is targeting this community, but also providing an opportunity for these boys to learn and enjoy learning, so that it doesn’t hinder them later on, because you know they can. Then later on, they disengage from education. Then all kinds of things can happen. So, we’re trying to nip that in the bud.”

A boy reads a book while getting his haircut at St. Julian Barbershop in Compton Oct. 27. The book was provided through a partnership between the Los Angeles County Library and Barbershop Books.
(Photo by Dennis J. Freeman)

Prince St. Julian has operated St. Julian Barbershop, located on Long Beach Boulevard, for about 10 years. Knowing the area as well as he does and its low academic achievement rate, St. Julian said he was excited about the proposed partnership. But because of other program proposals he has fielded over the years, St. Julian stayed optimistically vigilant until everything came through.

“I got kids myself, so I encourage, not only boys … I got daughters, too, I encourage kids to read,” St. Julian said. “Reading is power. I just wanted to be involved in this because it’s an honor to me. I’ve been here for 10 years.

“I’ve had a couple of people come in here and people wanted to do certain things but they never followed through. This is actually the first thing to follow through. I’m kind of happy seeing that it did to be part of it. It’s very important as far as reading. I stay on my kids to read every night. That was right up my alley. I’m hoping to see more things come out of this.”

Alvin Irby is the man behind the vision of Barbershop Books. Irby said the idea of seeing literacy improvement started when he was getting a haircut across the street from the school where he taught first grade.

“One day I was getting a haircut in the barbershop across the street from the school,” he said. “While I was getting my haircut, one of my first-grade students walked into the shop and he was just sitting there doing nothing for 20 minutes,” Irby said. “The whole time I was looking at him I was thinking that he should be practicing his reading right now because I knew his reading level.

“So I wished I had a children’s book to give him, but I didn’t. I kind of wrote a little note to myself saying that I think somebody probably should put children’s book in barbershops while our kids are waiting. It was literally a perfect storm of me being a teacher, him being my student, me being a black man and understanding the cultural significance of the barbershop.”

While the objective of the program is for kids to have fun and enjoy reading about their favorite characters, the bottom line is a round about way for them to improve their reading skills, Irby said.

“The purpose of Barbershop Books is to create positive early reading experiences for children, specifically to help young black boys be identified as readers,” Irby said.