Author Janelle Harper hosting a reading circle at PS 18 on June 5. By Leandra Manon.

Students, parents and educators kicked off the summer season with books, games and food at Bronx Community Educational District 7’s first annual literacy fair last Tuesday afternoon.

Schools in Mott Haven, Melrose and Port Morris all fall within District 7.

The fair, which was hosted at PS 18, the John Peter Zenger school, on Morris Avenue in Mott Haven, was part of an initiative to raise literacy rates for students in New York City.

The Bronx has some of the city’s lowest literacy rates. According to One Point Five Million, in 2016, 70% of third grade students in the South Bronx were unable to read, and 56% of high school students were not college ready. In 2023, the Bronx had lower median scores than other boroughs for the English Language Arts exam, which tracks language proficiency for third to eighth grade students. District 7 was tied for the second lowest median score from the borough’s 12 educational districts.

“We knew we needed to change the way we taught reading to our students, because we had years and years of data that showed that only a third of our students were really proficient,” said Vida Nazemain, the district’s literacy director and organizer of the event.

Studies show that children’s literacy can have a major ripple effect on the rest of their lives. Low literacy can lead to worse education outcomes and poor job opportunities, which contributes to wider socioeconomic gap, according to the Michigan Journal of Economics. Nonprofit organization Policy Circle also found that low literacy correlates with higher incarceration levels and poorer health outcomes in communities.

“Without reading, you can’t really access anything in life,” said Nazemain.

“Catch the Reading Wave,” the event’s theme, was chosen to help usher in the summer months and target what educator’s call the “summer slide.” The summer slide describes a phenomenon in which students lose some of the skills they gained during the school year during summer break.

“We liked the ‘reading wave’ because we liked the idea of it being something that grabs you and takes you, and it’s fun,” Nazemain said.

The event featured a range of activities, from engaging games to storytelling sessions and book giveaways. Workshops were offered for both students and adults to get the word out about existing resources for improving literacy rates for students.

Dr. Katie Miles, founder and president of the Reading Institute, said that learning to read is not a natural process and that children need as much support as they can get.

“Every kid needs support, no matter what neighborhood you’re in,” Miles said.

Dr. Katie Miles holds up her Reading Ready primer. By Leandra Manon.

Miles, an educational psychologist who specializes in literacy education and author of Reading Ready,  a reading resources manual for parents to better serve their kids at home, especially during the summer.

Miles said parents should have access to free workbooks that support what students are learning in the classroom. Those would include instructions for hands-on activities from language learning, letter practice, phonetic awareness and basic reading.

“Every one is caught up in, ‘You have to go buy,’” Miles said. “I’m like, no, you have stuff around your house. Someone just needs to tell you to do it this way.”

Karissa Santiago & daughter Kimora

Parent Karissa Santiago said she enjoyed the event because it motivated children to read and provided an additional alternative to the library.

“Without literacy, who can you be?” said Santiago, who attended the event with her daughter. “I try to instill that and encourage her with things like this, to show her that reading can be fun.”

Educators have long advocated for more bookstores in the borough. One small independent bookstore, The Lit. Bar, opened its doors in 2019 to Bronxites.

“I want to bring something new and something fresh with different language, colors and scenarios, but New York City-based,” said Gillian Alex, author of the upcoming book Victor the Mouse, which releases this fall.

Alex, who has been a substitute teacher in New York City for seven years, said children’s publishing has served as a way for her to give back to the community and show children the power of imagination.

“Your imagination is as big as the ocean,” Alex said. “Dive in, little swimmers.”

District 7 superintendent Roberto Padilla, who  attended the fair, said much more needs to be done to raise literacy rates and change the narrative.

“We recognize that this is a steep climb, but why not us? Why not our children?” said Padilla. “If you focus on literacy, all the other things fall into place to some degree.”

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