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Star City Reads Finds Creative Outlet For Children’s Books

Roanoke’s  ongoing commitment to improving the reading levels of third graders – often a harbinger of future success in school and beyond – is responsible in large part for the All-America City designation that has been awarded several times.

Star City Reads has distributed over 100,000 books to children since 2012 via a partnership with the Roanoke City Library system, the public school system and private entities. One result: third grade SOL test scores for the reading comprehension exam have risen by 10-12 points since 2013.

In an effort to get those books into the hands of more children, especially in largely minority neighborhoods, the program has now joined forces with 12 barbershops and hair salons in northwest Roanoke. Those shops will receive packets of books designed for young children, with titles now for older kids that they can read while their parents or other adults with them get their hair cut.

Mayor Sherman Lea Sr. helped kick off the launch for that new approach at the First Impressions barbershop on Melrose Avenue recently, speaking from a podium while onlookers were  having their hair cut just several feet away. “We’re not only moving the needle on reading but we’re closing the gap between minorities and white students [on reading level]. They’re doing better. We want to continue to do that.”

In largely African-American communities barbershops and hair salons are often seen as community hubs, places where local residents get together to share information and the latest gossip. Those hair salons have been enlisted in the past to help fight domestic abuse and gun violence for example. Now comes the Star City Reads program. “By providing these books … we are hoping our students can build independence and self-confidence, expand their vocabulary and lead to future academic success – enhance their imagination, make our children better readers and writers,” Lea stated.

First Impressions shop owner Malik Mohammed said the Star City Reads program was “welcome here. [We can] help bridge the gap between our neighborhoods out here and the city downtown.” First Impressions has been a community player for some time and for many years has offered free back to school haircuts ahead of opening day.

Roanoke City library system director Sheila Umberger said the collection of books being offered in northwest Roanoke will reflect the diversity of those living there. “Children want to be able to see themselves in the books – diversity in families, of gender and color and ethnicity. We try to honor that.” Umberger said the barbershop/hair stylist program is designed for children to read the books and leave them at the shop – but if they really want to take a book home then it will be replaced with others by request.

Umberger said they spent “a lot of time talking with the community,” before choosing the titles selected for the packages handed out to local hair shops.  Teen books are also included in these packages because they often frequent barbershops and hair salons added Umberger.

This is not the first “unusual” distribution venue that Star City Reads has chosen to use: since 2015 certain Valley Metro bus routes with high levels of family ridership into local neighborhoods have also featured collections of children’s books. “It’s been wonderful and successful to the point that we take books to Valley Metro and the bus drivers help restock the buses. We’ve heard wonderful stories about neighbors [reading to children] on the bus.”

Gene Marrano


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