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Using Black Children's Literature To Improve Reading

Tevin Wilson, a facilitator at Nine Network, and Angela Spittal, executive director of Ready Readers, talk with Confluence Academy-Old North first grade students Jermya Walker and Ziya Branom at the Believe Project reading room's grand opening on 12-19-19
Lance Thurman | The St. Louis American

Sixth grader Andre Turner leaned up against a wall-size mural of the new reading center at Confluence Academy-Old North.

His head rested on the “B,” about a foot taller than he is, that helped to form the word “Believe.” Turner was trying to stay out of the way as representatives from IKEA, Scholastic, Nine Network, Ready Readers and We Stories and leaders from his school district excitedly milled around the brand-new room.

When his fellow students return from winter break, they will be able to experience a quiet, relaxing reading room filled with black children’s literature and comfortable seating.

“I like the way they put it together,” Turner said over the noise. “I think they’ll like to sit around and read books inside this room.”

But on Dec. 19, the room was anything but quiet for its grand opening. The new reading room is part of the Believe Project, which is the brainchild of Julius B. Anthony, founder of St. Louis Black Authors and Children Literature. The group became a nonprofit last August, but has been going into schools and reading to children since 2016.

Old North’s reading room is the fourth to open since September, and Anthony expects there will be 10 or more sites by the end of 2020.

“My dream was to do only one,” Anthony said. “So much goodwill has been built around this project with the five partners, it took on a life of its own.”

The first room was established at the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center, followed by Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School in East St. Louis and Glasgow Elementary in the Riverview Gardens School District.

Three of the locations are within a Promise Zone, a high-poverty area that the federal government has selected to help improve job growth and educational opportunities and reduce crime.

“About 90% of the black children in public education in our region are attending a school in the Promise Zone communities,” Anthony said. “This is part of a Promise Zone community, and we really want to make sure that wherever we go we are supporting the work that was there and helping children fall in love with reading. That’s what this is all about.”

In the St. Louis metropolitan region, about 75% of black third graders aren’t passing the state-mandated exam in reading, he noted. The research shows that by the end of third grade, if students aren’t on grade level or above grade level in reading, they have a harder time in school, Anthony said. Research from Forward Through Ferguson suggests that students will have more difficulty navigating adult life if they aren’t good readers.

“That’s what this project is all about,” Anthony said. “It’s about using black children’s literature as a definitive strategy for improving reading for all children, particularly black children in St. Louis.”

Arionna Ralleigh, the Confluence Charter Schools’ curriculum coordinator, said the schools are focused on building their readers’ identities.

“The idea is that as we build them up as readers, they will also want to engage more in text,” Ralleigh said. “We are going to look at how that impacts their behavior, attendance and reading levels.”

The reading center is different from the school’s library because the books are not logged by reading level, said Leslie Muhammad, principal of Confluence Academy-Old North.

“I’m really loving the fact that they can come in and pick up a book — it doesn’t matter what book it is — and open a new world,” Muhammad said.

She also believes that the students will identify with the characters in the books because they have the “same, brown skin.”

“Most importantly, it’s a family atmosphere,” Muhammad said. “That’s why you see the different types of seating areas to really give them that home environment.”

In the center of the room is a couch with end tables. There is a wooden table that resembles a kitchen table or living room table. One corner has two reclined chairs, and another corner has beanbags on the floor. The room is specifically designed for kindergarten through fourth grade.

“Teachers will be with them, but they won’t be reading to them,” Muhammad said. “They will be reading their own books. It’s just an atmosphere for community building.”

Rebecca Rivas is a reporter with The St. Louis American, a reporting partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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