NEWARK, NJ - Mayor Ras Baraka launched a city-wide youth book club this week as part of a new effort to improve literacy in Newark.

The program, called #NewarkReads, brings together the goals of city government, Newark school district, and philanthropy to ensure that residents have the tools to succeed in school, career, and life.

The literacy initiative has three distinct approaches:

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  • A mayor’s youth book club.

  • Training for young people to help adults improve their reading skills.

  • A birth-to-third grade initiative to get young struggling readers on grade level.

Beyond reading books, the initiative aims to cultivate a city-wide culture of literacy which begins by viewing reading as not solely academic.

“We need to get students to read outside of the traditional opportunities that they have to read inside of a classroom. We need to allow people the opportunity to read [for] fun, as an adventure,” Baraka said.

“You read because reading is like eating,”  Baraka told a roomful of students, during the book club's launch at the Newark Public Library on Tuesday. He emphasized that, like food, reading is vital to physical, mental and intellectual strength.

Third-grade literacy is critical for students. Because reading is the gateway skill to further learning, children who cannot read proficiently are stuck in a relentless cycle of academic “catch up.” Students seldom catch up academically and are at high risk for not completing high school on time or discontinuing school altogether according to the Center for Public Education. 

A national study that correlates dropout rates, with reading proficiency, poverty, and race or ethnicity among third-graders found that a third of the students who tried to play catch up, comprised over 60% of students that did not graduate without four years or that have dropped out completely.

These students grow up to be one of more than 30 million U.S. adults, lacking basic reading proficiency. About half of all adults can read at an eighth-grade reading level or higher.

Poor and more brown and black communities face these issues more acutely. The mayor cited the lack of access to printed material, literacy, reading opportunities, and time constraints of working parents as challenges that make adulthood illiteracy more pronounced in cities like Newark.

The book club for middle school students kicks off this summer. Students can register online and choose between "I Am Malala" by Malala Yousafzai and "The Crossover" by Kwame Alexander. Books are available in all Newark Public Libraries on June 17 and will come with guided questions.

Each library branch will host summer kickoffs and there will be a city-wide celebration at the main library in August. The libraries will start with 500 books and will increase based on student participation.

The book club that focuses on high school students through adults will start in the fall. The birth-to-third grade initiative is expected to launch next year.

The coalition includes the City of Newark Office of Comprehensive Community Education and United Way of West Essex and Hudson County partnered with Newark Public Library, Panasonic Foundation, Newark Public Schools, Newark City of Learning Collaborative and others.

The Newark City of Learning Collaborative reallocated $30,000 of a state grant they received to help fund the literacy initiative. The organization’s goal is to move the city toward higher levels of college education attainment, making sure students graduate high school on time and succeed at the college level. Literacy is the core of what makes that possible said Reginald Lewis, Executive Director.

Alejandra Ceja, director of corporate social responsibility at Panasonic Foundation, presented an $80,000 check toward the initiative.

“Our workforce will need leaders that can go beyond what a robot is programmed to do,” said Ceja, who believes that cross-sector collaboration is instrumental to ensure progress.

“At Panasonic, we believe that literacy is the key to obtaining the knowledge and problem-solving skills that are needed to compete in the 21st century,” she said.