Yes, We Believe! Pershing Opens New Believe Project Literacy Lab
By NANCY CAMBRIA
Director of Communications
The little girl was drawn to a chunky new book stacked with others on a white bookshelf. She slowly took it down from the shelf and began leafing through the thick cardboard pages. Her eyes opened wide.
“That’s my hair!” she exclaimed.
The book featured a young Black girl about her age talking proudly about her kinky hair that had been braided into tiny locs. The reader, a kindergartner at Pershing Elementary School, pointed to the character’s hair and the colorful elastic beads at the end of each loc. Then she lifted a hand to her own hair and touched her similar braids and beads.
Just behind her, her older sister, a fifth-grader, leaned on a bold mural beneath a depiction of a Black girl sitting on a tree branch beside a treehouse. The sister was also reading a children’s book featuring a character with a skin tone like hers.
It was all part of the very exciting opening of Pershing Elementary School’s new Literacy Lab, a colorful, cozy classroom adorned with a purple couch, bold pillows and curtains and filled with hundreds of children’s books featuring characters and authors of color. The room’s full wall mural, hand-painted by local artist Billy Williams, features whimsical children with different skin tones reading in a landscape emboldened by a bright blue sky. In the center of the mural, a hot air balloon with the word “Believe” ascends into that sky.
“When we were children, we didn’t have characters in our school libraries that looked like us,” said Julius B. Anthony, founder of the St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature. “We so wanted that. We so wanted to see ourselves as the heroes and the leaders in the stories.”
Pershing’s new Literacy Lab is intended to make students of color true believers in themselves through the power of literacy. It gives all young students - particularly children of color - a chance to explore books on their own in a space of bright possibility. It was made possible by The Believe Project, an initiative of St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature, that supports the creation of such rooms in school buildings in urban schools in the St. Louis region. Pershing’s new Literacy Lab is the sixth such room created by The Believe Project.
“When we were children, we didn’t have characters in our school libraries that looked like us. We so wanted that. We so wanted to see ourselves as the heroes and the leaders in the stories.”
Students who utilize the rooms are all called Believers - because they can see themselves in colorful and imaginative books that show that anything is possible.
“Literacy is a tool of liberation,” said Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley. “The Literacy Lab will help our students aspire for a future with amazing opportunities while also experiencing the joy of reading, which they will have for the rest of their lives.”
The concept is based on research. Studies find students read and comprehend better when they can identify with characters that look like them in the books they are reading. The room is targeted to students in grades K-3, though students in all grades at Pershing will have access to the room. Research finds that students who don’t read at grade level by third grade are less likely to complete high school or go to college. Pershing’s younger students will have access to the room for at least 90 minutes a week, and Pershing’s teachers will receive training from a literacy and equity expert at Nine PBS on how to best utilize the space with children for increased reading competency.
The opening of the room included a series of celebrations and events. On Friday, November 12, Pershing students were given free copies of the yet-to-be-released children’s book, Dream Street, by popular author Tricia Elam Walker. The next day, about 70 people attended a grand opening celebration at the school that included music and singing by the students, a ribbon-cutting and tours of the room.
The ceremony gave the District a chance to thank The Believe Project as well as The Opportunity Trust, which provided a $34,500 grant to cover the cost of transforming the room and teacher training, and other supporters, including Nine PBS, Ready Readers, the Noble Neighbor, the Missouri History Museum, Turn the Page STL, and St. Louis Regional Literacy Association.
On Monday, November 15, each classroom in the school was given tours of the room. For most teachers and students, it was the first time they had seen the room. Many of the students were drawn to the mural of children reading and playing, some plopped into bean bag chairs, others made a beeline for the books, and others gathered around hand-held PBS reading devices. One student smiled and held his arms out, as if flying, as he stepped further into the room.
Students were also surprised to find television news cameras there. They and the room were featured on Fox2 News later that day.
The new lab is indicative of the innovative approach to learning at Pershing. In July 2020, Deitra Colquitt and Jessica Hawkins began leading the school as co-principals and have been introducing a school model that embraces the District’s focus on a human-centered approach to leadership. About 97 percent of the school’s children are students of color.
Pershing's new Literacy Lab was featured on Fox 2 News by reporter Shirley Washington. Click here to view the story.
Dr. Sharonica Hardin-Bartley and Julius Anthony also discussed The Believe Project at length on The Pulse, a Fox 2 News program hosted by Jasmine Huda. Click here to view the segment.