Childhood literacy is crucial to becoming a successful reader and lifelong learner. However, for low-income students, the outcome is disparate. According to Forbes, the ratio for age-appropriate books per child in low-income neighborhoods is one book per 300 children compared to middle-income areas, where the ratio is 13 books per child. As students prepare to head back to school in the coming weeks, giving more students access to diverse, inclusive literature is at the forefront of many educators’ minds. To help advance childhood literacy in low-income and BIPOC areas like the Bronx, New York, local representatives are working with nonprofit organizations striving to narrow the literacy gap.
“We want to work with students as early as possible to reinstate that love, excitement, and joy towards reading,” said Rina Madhani, the executive director and co-founder of Start Lighthouse.
Start Lighthouse launched in March 2020, as students struggled to find reading materials. The organization currently serves seven schools in the South Bronx from Pre-K through 8th grade and aims to end the literacy gap by offering a three-pronged approach for students. Their method includes literacy adventures, diverse representations through books, and community workshops. Since its founding, it has completed over 500 hours of programming, distributed 21,015 multicultural books, trained 105 volunteers, and created 5,117 home libraries in the South Bronx. The organization also gained support from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in March 2022, and it became one of her 15 community projects requesting funding to create permanent literacy hubs in schools in the South Bronx, where 63% of children are born into poverty, fewer than half of school-aged children meet city and state learning standards, and under 10% of adults have attained a college degree.
“The funding would support us orchestrating daily literacy programming for all the students in that school community,” Madhani said.
P.S. 214 in the Bronx has been working with Start Lighthouse to engage its students with diverse literature. Students can own their first book through their literacy adventures, read books by authors of color, and collaborate with their family members.
“Students are excited about the work that we’re doing here with Start Lighthouse,” said David Cintron, the former principal of P.S. 214, who is now transitioning to a superintendent role.
“They’re looking forward to their literary adventure visits and the workshops that the organization has provided for our students. “It’s always been important to me that my children see themselves in literature. We know, particularly for adolescent students, that seeing themselves reflected in the literature gives them that first step toward imagining the possibilities in life.”
According to a study by American University in Washington, D.C, students who fail to complete their education are more likely to experience negative outcomes, including poverty, poor health, and incarceration. The study shows that students from low-income areas are more likely to end up in the school-to-prison pipeline because of practices and policies that disproportionately target and criminalize Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
Melanie Baez is a parent who learned about Start Lighthouse after attending one of their events in her child’s school in the Port Morris neighborhood of the Bronx. Baez loved that the books highlighted different cultures, gave children the opportunity to engage with the literature, and catered to both students and parents.
“I’m a firm believer that books can change your life,” Baez said. “There was a book that was all about celebrating Puerto Rican heritage, and that’s my heritage, that’s my blood. When I saw that … I made sure I put it on my desk at work, and I also shared that with some of the families at the school where I work … It’s just something wonderful, and I think that that also allows kids to want to open up a book.”
Although the number of banned books nationwide is expanding, most of the books that Start Lighthouse display for students and parents to check out are all on the banned list, such as
“All Boys Aren’t Blue,” “The Hate U Give,” “Ghost Boys,” and “The Poet X.”
“These issues need to be centered as we’ve gone through many attributes of time where marginalized voices and stories continue to be oppressed. And we’re just not going to allow that to stay true,” Madhani said. “And that’s why we are so intentional about the books and the stories that we allow our students in the Bronx to have access to.”
Although Start Lighthouse works with schools in the Bronx, organizations nationwide—like Our Kids Read in Maryland and The Conscious Connect in Ohio—have the same mission. Funding for Start Lighthouse purchases books, furniture, authors’ residency honorariums, and supplies to help students achieve reading proficiency by third grade. It also supports interactive workshops to develop at-home reading routines for both students and their families.
“Students have come up to me and just told me, ‘I appreciate the color of my skin and how my hair looks,’” Mahani said. “We were talking about their hair texture, but we’re talking about students as young as 6 and 7 being able to internalize these sentiments and verbalize them.”