Before she brought the students into the main area of Willy Tee’s Barbershop in Homewood to listen to a story, Cynthia Battle asked parents and police officers what their favorite childhood book was.
Battle, a community outreach specialist for the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC), said she loved "The Pancake Man."
“Arty the Smarty”, a tale of a fish who never got caught by the fisherman, was the favorite of a Pittsburgh Police Officer. “Green Eggs and Ham,” and “Cat and the Hat,” were other beloved stories.
Battle said in order to combat the vocabulary gap between children in impoverished neighborhoods, parents and community members have to remind themselves why they loved reading as a child.
To raise lifelong readers, Battle presented several techniques parents can use to help a child see reading a book can be interactive and fun.
Pittsburgh Community Resource Officer for zone 5, Karen McNeal, used those techniques as she read “Our Children Can Soar,” the story of the Civil Rights Movement.
PAEYC has held Raising Reader programs weekly at the barbershop since January 2014 as a way to bring the community together at a central location. Battle said she asked the officers to read to the children to build relationships.
“You’ve been hearing so much in the news about police officers shooting this innocent guy or this kid, and I thought it would be interesting for our police officers and our children to get to know each other on a level that’s not scary or that’s on a friendly or funny note,” she said.
McNeal said she was there to show children that cops don’t just show up when bad things happen.
“Children see police cars ride by, they’re a little nervous because they don’t know the officers. But this way it gives us a chance to talk to them and let them know that we’re here for them. Sometimes we do have to arrest people, unfortunately, because we are protecting them or their community,” she said.
Officers from Zone 5 will sit and read with children in the barber shop for the next six weeks.
“What our commander Jason Lando wants to do is have the officers in the patrol actually get out and read as well, because those are the officers that are coming in contact with the community. Right now they are taking 911 calls and don’t have time to do it, but when they do they want to let them know that they have families and they want to do this just as well,” McNeal said.
For Battle, the relationships built in the barbershop will help her have conversations with the children she works with.
“The hardest thing in the world is to explain to your children, especially young boys, if a police officer stops you, you know what you need to do and what you need not to do,” she said.
A few weeks ago Battle had that conversation with her 11-year-old grandson. She said when students know the officers in their neighborhood at a young age, that conversation will be easier.