Tablet Donation Keeps Youngstown Students Learning During Pandemic

BOARDMAN, Ohio – Austria Wright has been concerned for her children, who attend Kirkmire Elementary in Youngstown. She’s concerned about COVID-19 and exposing her children to crowds of people. 

But one of her main concerns is for her kids and their education. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, her second and third graders have been learning from home and without a library to use.

It’s for families like the Wrights that Kelan Bilal, owner of Excalibur Barber Grooming Lounge in Boardman, lent a helping hand.

Bilal passed out 20 tablets to children in the Youngstown City School District on Monday so the students can continue to read over the summer. 

“I can be in the safety of my own home, my kids can read and it’s convenient,” Wright said. “I don’t have to do a lot of restrictions like a regular tablet. It’s for reading so that helps out a lot too.”

Bilal worked with Linda Hoey, Youngstown City Schools’ chief of family engagement, to determine who would receive the tablets.

“We were trying to figure out a way that we could somehow get the tools into the kids’ hands,” Bilal said.

Bilal, creator of Barbershop Reading Initiative Developing Growth in Education, is an active supporter of Youngstown City Schools. Bridge’s goal is to reduce “summer slide,” when a student’s reading skills diminish over the summer as they aren’t required to read in class.

Ravienna Cheeks, a kindergartner at Volney Rogers Elementary, was among the students who got their tablets Monday.

“We connect with all the kids,” Bilal said. “We’re with them half an hour at a time. We wanted to bring a program to them [so] that we could be able to help.”

According to a 2004 Harvard study, students are more likely to read if they have easier access to books. The study also recommended that students read four to five books in the summer to carry their reading skills into the fall. 

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education recommended that Bilal and the barbers focus on student literacy between kindergarten and third grade. Students who read below grade level by that point are at an increased risk of dropping out by high school.

By providing the students with 20 Amazon Fire tablets, the students can use e-books whenever they need.

June Johnson, parent engagement coordinator at Volney Rogers Elementary, said the school district usually has reading programs in place for the summer. At times, “local heroes” such as Mayor Jamael Tito Brown or other members of the community would read to the students.

“What’s happening now because of the COVID pandemic, the students have a gap,” Johnson said. “So that gap is being filled by giving them the notebooks now instead of waiting until the end of the program.”

Johnson said the tablets are another avenue for providing education via technology. She said students usually use Chromebooks and computers while in school, so using them at home in another resource.

“Some of them will learn Spanish and different languages. In addition to having a teacher teach them, they’re also using programs that are on the computer,” Johnson said. “It just gives them more technical skills.”

Wright said she commends Youngstown City Schools for being proactive in supporting its students and families. While Wright says she has a support system and doesn’t need all the resources, she said there are families in Youngstown who aren’t as lucky.

“I think without programs like this, a lot of kids would miss out because they only get [certain resources] from school,” Wright said.

Pictured at top: Kelan Bilal, owner of Excalibur Barber Grooming Lounge, donated 20 tablets to Youngstown City Schools to make sure students can have access to digital libraries.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.