Kean University, Hillside Township Kick Off New Community Literacy Initiative

Educators, elected officials, clergy and business owners in Hillside are joining forces with Kean University and the Township of Hillside to launch a community literacy program designed to foster a love of reading and support literacy throughout the town.

Kean University and Hillside Mayor Dahlia Vertreese, in partnership with Scholastic, the world’s largest publisher of children’s literature for over 100 years, have created the Hillside Community Literacy Initiative. The project is building an “ecosystem” that will bring culturally relevant books to children and spark personal growth through literacy that allows them to see themselves in stories.

The project reflects Kean’s work as the first urban research university in New Jersey.

“We are working with urban communities throughout the state to create programs that positively impact the lives of their residents and can be replicated across New Jersey. This is one of those programs, and Hillside has been an outstanding partner in this initiative,” said Kean President Lamont O. Repollet, Ed.D. “We want to get to the root of student performance and student achievement, which is literacy.”

Sancha K. Gray, Ed.D., senior vice president for Entrepreneurial Education Initiatives at Kean, which is leading the program, said the goal is to make children excited about reading.

“We are transforming the Township of Hillside around literacy,” she said. “Literacy is a foundational piece that all children, students, families and entire communities need to excel in life and beyond. When children are at the barbershop, the beauty salon, and in the community, we want to make sure there are culturally relevant books available. We want students to see themselves reflected in stories.”

The new initiative will put curated books into the community via “book towers,” creating mini-libraries and “reading routes” near stores, churches and other strategic locations. Stories will also be shared throughout the Township via recorded “read-alouds,” starting with Vertreese followed by local officials, educators, business owners and community leaders. Children, teens and families will be able to access the stories via a QR code found in locations around town.

At a professional development session and kickoff at Kean’s Hynes Hall on Monday, March 28, participants in the initiative heard from presenters about the importance of literacy and how to encourage it. The objective of the community professional development was to educate and train the members of the ecosystem on strategies to support literacy. In order to truly transform a community, literacy is the responsibility of all individuals within the ecosystem especially as we transition from over two years of being in a pandemic, Gray said.

Hillside Mayor Vertreese, a mom and former teacher, said she saw the need to help children build literacy skills, especially during the pandemic, when children had less one-on-one contact with teachers.

In the short term, Vertreese said the project will let residents know that literacy is being addressed. In the long term, she said hopes are it will boost high school students’ test scores and writing skills, and better prepare them to get into college.

“Parents need to know that they are not alone,” she said. “Together we will be able to catch up on a lot of things that were lost and propel our students forward.”

While similar community initiatives have been led by Scholastic in other states, Dwaine Millard, senior vice president of Scholastic Literacy Initiatives, said the Hillside program is the company’s first in New Jersey.

“It’s not just about the written word, it’s about the power of sharing stories, and sharing relationships so we can grow together,” Millard said. “It really is about learning and literacy in every space. We are happy to be a partner with Kean and the Township of Hillside.”

Hillside’s education community will support and advance the initiative. Hillside School Board President Kimberly Cook and Superintendent Erskine Glover, and several principals and teachers were among the group at the kickoff.

Glover said he would like to see family literacy nights held, where parents and children can gather in a comfortable setting in the schools and read together.

“While learning takes place at home first, school should be the place where we can continue to build upon that,” he said.

Cook said the group wants to “encourage reading from our youngest to our oldest.

“I’m excited. The partnership with Kean is great for our students,” she said. “They get to see what’s right around the corner from us in Hillside, and hopefully through reading it opens up opportunities.”

The initiative’s mini-libraries will be easily accessible to residents, including at barbershops and hair salons, where children may have time to sit and read, and churches.

Senior Pastor Christopher Jones of First Baptist Church in Hillside said his church will provide read-along programs to support the project.

“We believe that when you read, you rise, and we want our young people in the community to rise,” he said. “Over the last two years, I’ve watched how the community became more fragmented. There is no better way to bring the community back together than to invite young people to find joy in reading.”

Ronnie Speaks, owner of Original Cuts hair salon and Original Cuts EVO barbershop, welcomed the opportunity to spread the word.

“I will have books located in certain areas,” Speaks said. “I like the fact that this program is interacting within the business community.”

Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp, vice president of the state’s Urban Mayors Association, was also at the session. He called literacy “critical” to all communities.

“Having a program like this sends a very strong message that Kean University is conscious about the need to expand literacy in our communities,” Mapp said. “Literacy is the responsibility of all of us, and I am excited about having an opportunity to participate.”

A native of Barbados – a Caribbean nation with a literacy rate over 99% – Mapp said he would like to see the literacy program brought to his city, Plainfield.

“If we have a more literate population, it makes a better Plainfield,” he said. “We could help transform our city.”

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