Progressive Educators Spread Literacy Through Book Bins

By Cheryl Conway

’The book lady’ recently made her rounds in several towns in Essex County delivering bins of children’s books to nail salons and beauty, barber and braiding shops.

What started out in June as the Progressive Educators Essex County 2016 Literacy Community Initiative has continued, expanding to four towns with currently 17 beauty/barber shops, three braiding shops and one nail salon. West Orange resident Phyllis Ann Johnson, aka ‘the book lady,’ founded the project through her business Progressive Educators LLC, an educational resource company in West Orange.

Through the literacy initiative, children who accompany their parents to a hair or nail appointment are being provided with other options to stimulate their minds other than devices or handheld games.

“I see children, male children, girl children; these barber shops are packed,” says Johnson, a retired special education teacher. “It’s where children spend their weekends. It takes four hours to get their hair braided. Children accompany their parents to these places. They’re just sitting there with a handheld game.”

Johnson selected beauty, barber and braiding shops and nail salons as recipients of her literacy initiative because “there are hundreds,” she said. “When you start counting beauty and barber shops, it’s almost a commodity to have a barber and beauty shop in local community.”

The Community Literacy Advocate recipients are selected by accepting a “free” bin of books, says Johnson. In that bin of books are 30 new or gingerly used books and other items. The bin is then placed in a convenient location at the shop where children have access at “arm’s length” or within “direct eye view” to the book bin.

Johnson describes it as “a bin of books and things,” such as trinkets, puzzles, coloring books, crayons. “Whatever we can put in the bin; there’s cards so they can play. It’s very small; it’s very quaint. They fit it on the counter.”

On every other Wednesday, Johnson returns to the businesses to refresh the assortment.

“I take out old ones and replace with new ones,” she says, providing fresh new reads for the children of the clientele to enjoy.

“They call me the book lady,” Johnson laughs. “Now I can’t stop the books; they look for me. Everyone wants the books.”

The reading audience for these books is kindergarten through eighth grade. She recommends “children’s books of interest, good reading material.” Most are in excellent condition. “They are wonderfully illustrated, well written.”

Johnson began Progressive Educator’s in Jan. 2014 as a vendor of New Jersey Department of Education. Her educational services include English language enrichment classes for adults and children, after school homework help and home, tutorial and supplementary instruction services offered privately or through contracted NJ school districts in 21 cities in Essex County.

Her idea for the literacy initiative came about when she realized how many books teachers throw out.

“I work in so many school districts,” says Johnson. “Teachers were cleaning out their classrooms and throwing out so many books; cleaning out classes for summer getting rid of lots of books.” That’s when Johnson decided to grab those books instead of watching them go to waste.

“I got so many books I didn’t know what to do with them,” says Johnson. “I wanted to share them.” She also got books through donations from Child’s Play in South Orange, 200 from the West Orange Library and through a donation drive posted on Facebook.

“I got nice books from the West Orange Library book sale,” says Johnson. “They just fill up the bag.”

After working as a high school teacher in reading and language arts for 22 years, Johnson realizes the importance of reading for enjoyment.

When a student is in kindergarten through elementary, he or she is required to read 30 minutes per day. But “when a child is in a different setting, it brings about joy. Where there are books available outside school buildings, they become more fluent. The pressure is not there. They engage in reading because they like to read.”

So far, “progressive educators community literacy advocates have fully embraced our literacy initiative and are excited about continued participation through 2017 in helping to spread and encourage literacy in their communities,” says Johnson.

Barber Gary Johnson of Johnson’s Barber states, “Just to witness the expression on the youths’ faces while actually sitting there reading a book instead of playing an electronic hand held game while receiving or waiting for a parent to be served is absolutely delightful and encouraging!” He says, the program is working, they are reading the books out of the bin.

Progressive Educators LLC plans to recruit throughout 2016-2017 more local barber, beauty, braiding and nail shop owners in Essex County to participate and help to spread and encourage literacy throughout Essex County communities. She hopes to spread to Bloomfield, Montclair and South Orange.

Her business also supports and creates literacy initiatives for and with community based and non-profit organizations in Georgia, Kenya, St. Thomas Virgin Islands, and Uganda, with tutorial services, school materials and books.

“In essence we collect school supplies and lots of children’s books that are donated to us from people, churches and organizations anywhere and everywhere and share what we have with those who need what we have, with no strings attached.”

Hence her hashtag is “#ReadingBooksMatter” and “#SpreadingLiteracyInTheCommunity.”

To donate children’s books or to become a literacy advocate, call Johnson at 973-669-2819.

“If you see the bin know that Progressive Educators have been there,” Johnson concludes.

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