South Jersey school district hopes to create 'a buzz' about reading

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Jordan Brown, 8, reads a book while getting a haircut at D & D's barbershop in Woodbury. The Evergreen Avenue Elementary third grader is in a program that offers discounts to students who read while getting their hair cut. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Anthony Booker-Whitfield usually needs an incentive to pick up a book. But not when the second grader jumped into the chair at his local barbershop.

The youngster stopped by the D & D's barbershop in downtown Woodbury recently to get a fresh cut and read aloud to the barber. He selected a book about sharks.

"I won't have to read when I get home," he said. "I have to read for 30 minutes every day."

Anthony, 7, is among a handful of Woodbury public school students selected to help the district last week launch a program targeting young readers.

District officials hope the program will create a buzz and more of the nearly 800 elementary school students in grades 2 through 5 will spend more time reading outside of school.

"We were trying to come up with something out of the box," said Tom Braddock, Evergreen Avenue Elementary School principal. "Why not let them read out loud?"

The program is modeled after similar barbershop-based literacy efforts that have caught on around the country in Harlem; Ypsilanti, Mich.; Houston; Dubuque, Iowa; and Columbus, Ohio.

"This is an excellent program," said Donald Backus, owner of D & D in Woodbury and the father of three. "It boosts kids' confidence about reading in public."

Students can bring a book of their own choosing to the barber or select from a pile donated by the district to the business. Some barbershops have their own small library collections.

As she cheerfully trimmed Mya Adams' hair, stylist Jennifer Maurer at Edward's Hairstyling occasionally looked down to follow along as the 7-year-old softly read from What Moms Can't Do.

"There were some big words in there. You did a great job," Maurer, a mother of two, told the second grader.

In exchange for reading to their barber or stylist, the students get a discount on their haircut. The barbers say they gain much more from their young clients.

After reading several pages from Dr. Seuss' If I Ran the Rain Forest, Jonathon Barquin, 7, was happy to pocket $3 from barber Marc Strano.

"What kid doesn't like that?" said Strano. "I do anything I can to help, anything for the kids."

Experts believe that as little as 16 minutes additional reading time a day, or "eyes on text," can significantly bolster reading skills.

Nationally, about one-third of fourth graders performed at or above proficiency, according to the latest results on the National Assessment of Education Progress.

Woodbury's third through fifth graders lag their counterparts at other New Jersey schools on state standardized-reading proficiency test scores. (Second graders do not take the state test.)

Braddock said school officials want to encourage students to become avid readers at a young age - a major challenge when many would likely prefer playing video games.

Fourth grader Zachary Wells, 10, read a few pages from Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, while getting a trim for his curly auburn hair. He has read the entire series with his mother, Alison, a special-education paraprofessional in the district.

"I love reading," Zachary said. "It feels like you're in a fantasy world. If you're having a bad day you can read a book and it will make you feel better."

So far, five Woodbury barbershops and salons have signed up for the literacy program. The discount varies by salon. The first haircuts last week were free - sponsored by the local Parent Teacher Organization.

"It's great for kids to read and get into it and not be forced to do it," said Kirsten Haydu, a stylist at Marc's barbershop.

Anthony's mother, Shereece Booker, requires him to read nightly for at least a half hour. She usually cajoles him by offering an incentive such as a treat or special privilege if he puts in a little extra reading time.

"When he gets a book he enjoys, he really gets into it," Booker said. "He does a great job reading."

Zachary, who reads several levels above his grade, has another reason for enjoying the trip to the barbershop.

"I like getting haircuts. It makes me look a lot more fly," he says with a broad smile.

mburney@phillynews.com 856-779-3814 @mlburney

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