Project85, working to help black K-12 students read, adapts to COVID-19

Project helping children learn to read in Rock Hill

ROCK HILL, S.C. (WBTV) - Barbershops and hair salons in South Carolina opened months ago, but walk into any shop and you will see COVID-19 impacts. People are wearing masks and barbers and stylists are using Lysol on capes.

A program helping black students read had to change since the coronavirus hit.

Austin Smith reads with his son Brice every night. It is a ritual preparing Brice before he can even talk.

“He loves to read," says Smith. "Although he might not be able to fully articulate words right now it’s creating muscle memory.”

Another ritual Brice is starting to get used to is going to the barbershop. A place where opening a book can create comfort.

“I’d like to take my son to the barbershop for his first haircut and he’s probably nervous," says Smith. "To give him a book to read has some farm animals on it and now he’s not even thinking about what’s about to happen.”

The books are more than a distraction though. In 2016, the Department of Education said 85 percent of black boys - from kindergarteners through seniors in high school - were not reading at a proficient level.

“When I first seen the numbers it kind of took me back a days because that’s basically everyone but me and my three cousins. That’s a problem," Tadean Page, founder of Project85.

From his website, Project85 is an initiative Page created through Motivating Males, another organization helping black men.

The project places libraries in barbershops throughout the state of South Carolina. With roughly 500 books collected and libraries in Dillon, Rock Hill, Lancaster, Columbia, etc. that work is still going strong. There are about eight barbershops across the Palmetto State with these libraries.

The stats prompted Page to found Project85. It is an organization set out to give black boys books where they were—the barbershop. But then, COVID-19 hit, closing the place making an impact.

“COVID doesn’t stop the show because black boys are still breathing," says Page. "And as long as their breathing they have needs that we should answer to.”

When the doors shut, Page pushed through. He used social media to put out books of people reading. Links were set up for PDF books online. He also started putting libraries in essential businesses, like laundromats. To do, he has partnered with Early Learning Partnership of York County, York County Library and Junior Welfare League to hit laundromats across York County.

“Those are some of the things we’re trying to do to fill those gaps in the meantime," says Page.

With the shops back open COVID is still a challenge. Hand-to-hand contact is limited so books are still on the shelves, but Page says they are doing whatever it takes to help black boys like Brice.

“I think we can’t stop. Because of COVID because of anything," says Page.

One thing I’ve learned is leaders are readers," says Smith.

Page says the program has also grown into a different role of its own. He says he has found more mentorship opportunities since COVID hit. It has grown from making sure black boys read into making sure black boys are mentally ok.

Page says one of his mentees lost his grandfather and father to COVID-19. Page stepped up to be a positive role model in his life, and find others to do so too. He says this move has been incredibly necessary with the coronavirus.

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