By SUZANNE KOZIATEK
Soon, students at Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School – and beyond – will get the chance to experience reading in a whole new way.
The school is one of the first sites for a program aimed at making books and reading more appealing to young kids, particularly children of color.
The Believe Project is the work of a group of educators, media and businesses to create “reading rooms” promoting the joy of books.
Dan Nickerson, principal at Sister Thea Bowman in East St. Louis, says the school’s reading room, which is slated to open at the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, will be different from a school library.
“A library is an academic place,” he says. “This is not a library, it’s just a place to go and chill with a book.”
It will be a comfy, carpeted place with beanbag chairs and other spots to curl up and read. Nickerson says the reading room will be stocked with 1,000 books aimed at children in kindergarten through third grade. At least 80 percent of the books will be written by black authors or feature black protagonists.
That’s an important feature at schools like Sister Thea Bowman, whose student body is predominantly African-American, Nickerson says.
When our students see themselves in a book, they relate to it better,” Nickerson says. “We want to get kids into the room looking at and reading books about themselves.”
It’s all aimed at improving the reading skills of the youngest students.
Studies have shown that children who are not reading at age level by the third grade are four times more likely to later leave high school without a diploma.
Sister Thea Bowman School already employs a number of strategies to counteract that problem, Nickerson says, including sending books home to build students’ personal libraries.
“But we’re not getting everybody,” he says. So he jumped at the opportunity to do more when he was approached by Julius Anthony, a veteran educator and president of St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature.
Anthony says his group had been working for years to get more books by black authors featuring black characters into school libraries. He says Scholastic, the large children’s book publisher, reached out to him in an effort to further diversify their catalog. In the process, he learned about Scholastic’s own reading room projects, and tweaked the idea to introduce it in St. Louis.
“We want kids to not only connect with books, but to discover the joy of literacy,” Anthony says. “We want to encourage a love for literacy in these spaces, which can spill over into the classroom.”
In addition to books and reading space, the reading room will feature safe tablets provided by Nine Network (the St. Louis PBS affiliate), loaded with activities and games that promote literacy. There will be an arts and crafts center, and Plexiglas easels on which children can draw pictures and write words.
Nickerson says Sister Thea Bowman’s reading room will be enhanced by a mural by Damon Davis, an alumnus of the school whose art based on the Ferguson unrest is shown in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
It will also feature “handprint trees” painted on the walls, so that “a student can pick up a book and sit under a tree to read,” Nickerson says.
Anthony says the Believe Project’s benefits don’t end once the books and furniture are installed. Members of St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature will hold regular readings of their work and distribute free autographed books to students.
“We’ll also bring in national authors, and the kids will get autographed copies of their books, too,” he says.
All of this is being made possible through the contributions of sponsors: St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature, Nine Network, IKEA, Scholastic Books and Ready Readers, a group that sends volunteers to read to children. The Sister Thea Bowman project also received a grant from the St. Clair County Intergovernmental Grants Department.
In addition to Sister Thea Bowman, reading rooms will be set up at the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center in Ferguson, Mo., and at Glasgow Elementary School in the Riverview Gardens School District in St. Louis. The three reading rooms are slated to officially open in late July and early August.
Nickerson says his school became involved because he had an earlier connection with Anthony.
“He liked the culture of what we’re doing here,” Nickerson says. “When he came to us and explained what he wanted to do, I said, ‘Yes – bring it on!’”
Nickerson wants to multiply the benefits of the reading room by inviting other groups to tour it during the summer, beginning at the end of the next school year. “Our hope is that other organizations can partner with us and bring their students here on field trips.”
Anthony says that this type of project can help kids in any type of school or institution. “Any kid could benefit from this experience – this project could work anywhere.”
Anthony says he’s had a passion for helping cultivate literacy among children of color ever since he was a young boy in a St. Louis school, seeing kids sorted into groups by reading proficiency.
“I was always with the advanced kids, but it really did bother me that there were kids who never got out of the bottom group,” Anthony says. “I feel every kid should have the opportunity to excel and I’ve spent my entire career trying to correct that, in my own way.”