CLEMSON — DeAvin Rencher is a fixture at Upstate Barbers in Central. But he’s not a customer or barber. He’s a special education major at Clemson University and Call Me MISTER student who works with kids through the Razor Readers program.
Clemson’s Call Me MISTER program is sending its students to local barbershops each week to school children — and their parents — on the importance of reading early and often. These weekly sessions are the focus of Razor Readers, a program funded by the United Way of Pickens County that aims to increase children’s access to reading materials and individuals that can serve as educational role models.
Call Me MISTER works to increase the pool of available teachers from more diverse backgrounds, particularly among the lowest-performing elementary schools. The MISTERs play a key role in Razor Readers as role models, according to Amity Buckner, executive director of Pickens County First Steps. Buckner applied for the United Way grant with the MISTERs in mind to deliver the program. She has seen MISTERs work with children and describes their contribution as a necessary piece of Razor Readers and a blessing to the communities involved.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for Call Me MISTER students who are so passionate about education to instill a love for reading and education in children,” Buckner said. “When you realize that a MISTER may be the first African-American male these young learners meet that values education, you realize the potential impact of this program.”
The United Way grant award of $6,200 has been used to provide books for children ages 0-10 in participating barber shops. Children can read the books while waiting in line for haircuts or in their free time. The barbers have punch cards for each child that when filled qualify them for a free haircut.
Rencher said the program fits the mission of Call Me MISTER because it caters to students from Title I schools defined by high percentages of children from low-income families. Rencher said he was on board with the idea from the moment he was invited by Call Me MISTER leaders to be involved.
“As a kid, I remember the barber shop as a place where adults talked about football and kids would listen to them; we might as well give them something productive to do,” Rencher said. “I didn’t see an African-American male teacher until high school, and many of these young kids think it’s cool that I’m doing something positive through education.”
He said in the opening weeks of the program late this summer, he concentrated more on breaking the ice with the children, getting them to laugh and talking to them about their favorite things. After gaining their trust, their interest in reading increased.
Parent and caregiver engagement makes up the other half of the program. Before and during haircuts, MISTERs guide parents through early education tools to increase school readiness. The MISTERs deliver the programs, Ready Rosie and The Palmetto Basics, via tablet computers supplied to the barbershops. These tools will help parents engage with their children and encourage reading at home and school. Now kids are excited to make reading a part of their normal barber shop routine and, hopefully, a priority at home.
“I like to talk to parents first to get their consent and also get them on board, and many of them have really gotten involved,” Rencher said. “We want to use every tool we can to get kids more engaged with reading, and coaching the parents to encourage it just increases the odds we’ll succeed.”
Smiley Garvin is owner and operator of Uptown Barbers and he has witnessed Rencher’s work with both parents and children firsthand. Garvin moved an unused barber chair and replaced it with a table and chairs for Rencher and the kids. He said several kids who come in and out of the shop wouldn’t read in their spare time outside of the shop, and he believes they are quicker to embrace reading in a setting that isn’t school, home or library.
Levi “T” Robinson owns D’s Diamond Cuts, another participating barbershop in Easley. Robinson said the program closes an important reading gap for children in an age of smartphones and video games. Robinson has been enthusiastic about the program’s goals since he was first approached to participate, going so far as to create flyers for the program that he distributed via local churches. He’s been thrilled to see kids returning to the shop not for another haircut, but for more books.
“The Call Me MISTER guys are given a gift to educate and when they bless someone else with that gift they are blessed themselves,” Robinson said. “Seeing those guys do what they do for these kids is what keeps me enthusiastic about the program.”
In addition to Uptown Barbers and D’s Diamond Cuts, the program is also featured at A Cut Above the Rest in Easley. Parents interested in the program can stop by these businesses to learn more about the program and can sign children up any time during normal business hours. MISTERs are on site from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturdays, but books are available for checkout during normal business hours all week.
Call Me MISTER began at Clemson University in 2000 with a goal of placing more male African-American elementary teachers from diverse cultures and backgrounds in the classroom. Since then, the program has graduated 203 MISTERs who are now teaching in South Carolina schools and has expanded to include 19 other universities and technical colleges in South Carolina, as well as programs in eight additional states.
Michael Staton is with the College of Education at Clemson University.