Alphonzo Macon took his seat in front of a classroom of squirming 4-year-olds, and introduced himself as “Parker’s dad.”
Then he flipped open “We are in a Book!” and began to read the silly tale about two characters trapped in a book. He shouted out nonsense words and funny phrases while the preschoolers at his feet giggled.
Every Tuesday, Learning Through Play pre-K center in the South Bronx invites dads like Macon to read to their child’s class. It’s just one of the ways that Assistant Principal Anthony Tucker is trying to combat stereotypes while also building his students’ love for books.
Outside of school, Tucker has installed bookshelves in a pair of Harlem sneaker stores, through an initiative he calls Kicks and Books, and he has also set up miniature lending libraries at public housing playgrounds across the city.
Tucker has made it part of his mission to welcome fathers into the building. In a world full of PTA moms, Tucker says the fathers in his school community need to be told they’re valued, too. And with a student body that is 100% black and Hispanic, Tucker says his students need to see positive role models who look like them.
“Kids don’t normally do what you tell them to do, but they do what they see. So if they see them reading, chances are they’re going to want to emulate that action,” he said.
Learning Through Play is a gleaming new pre-K center at the foot of a highway connecting the South Bronx with Manhattan. The center’s 3- and 4-year-olds come from one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where families’ experiences with schools often leave them feeling let down.
Sometimes Tucker finds that his students’ parents may shy away because they’ve had their own negative memories of school. For example, in New York City and nationally, black students are more likely to be suspended from school. But oftentimes, those experiences can serve as motivators, he said.
“We don’t want the same experience for our kids, so anything we can do to make sure our children are in good shape or good hands, we’re going to make sure that happens,” he said.
It also helps to have a school leader like Tucker who can relate to the families he serves. Tucker is black and grew up in East Harlem, and struggled in school until finally dropping out. He said he is open with his families about the adversity he has faced because it helps build their trust.
“A lot of families look for that connection, and a lot of us connect through that personal experience — having shared those same experiences,” he said.
Now, Tucker occupies a rare position. About 18% of city teachers are black, while almost 30% of students are. Nationwide, only about 2% of pre-K and kindergarten teachers are male, according to federal statistics.
At Learning Through Play, sign up sheets in classrooms ask dads to come in to read. The nature of pre-K also affords lots of face time with parents at dropoff and pickup, so teachers also encourage parents to get involved.
When it’s hard to engage with families, Tucker just tries new approaches. When one dad couldn’t come in to read because he had to travel for work, he sent in a video recording and students watched it together in the gym.
On a Tuesday this winter, Sekou O’uhuru brought in a book that he and his son, Jabari, love — an interactive story about mixing up colors. The school asks parents to bring in their own books so they feel comfortable reading them aloud. In Jabari’s classroom of 3-year-olds, students squealed when his dad called each one by name, asking them to turn a page or swirl their finger in pretend globs of paint.
For O’uhuru, coming in to read is reassuring because he sees that his son, his first child, is adjusting well to school.
“I’m looking forward to doing it as much as I can,” he said.
Macon, who read to his son’s class of 4-year-olds, feels he’s teaching his son a valuable lesson by coming in to read. He knows that moms are often expected to be more involved, which is exactly why he showed up.
“Whenever they’ve got something, if I’m available to do it, I always do it. Sometimes I even make time, leave work,” he said. “I understand the stereotype, but I’m trying not to have that in my house.”
Tucker, who has self-published two children’s books, is also looking for ways to get children reading outside of school. Last fall and this spring, he hung up plastic folders on the gates of public housing playgrounds and stuffed them with books that were being given away on Craigslist. He hopes to keep up the effort now that the weather is again favorable for storing books outside. Tucker is also looking for ways to bring more bookshelves to local sneaker stores, noting that the entire borough of the Bronx had gone without its own bookstore until recently.
“What message are we sending to our children? That we don’t read, besides in school?” he asked. “You won’t fall in love with something if you don’t have access to it.”