On the morning of November 18 at the Port Morris School of Community Leadership in the South Bronx, first-grade students sat on the auditorium’s retractable chairs and chattered among each other. Bronx native Charles G. Esperanza, also known as C.G. Esperanza, stood on the stage underneath gold balloons that spelled out “Yes I Can.”
“Hello, everyone,” Esperanza projected as he held Boogie Boogie, Y’all in his hands—a book he authored and illustrated as an ode to graffiti in parks, shops, and trains in the Bronx. “I am an artist, writer, and illustrator.” With their attention now on him, the conversations of students faded almost in unison as Esperanza began to speak on the process of bringing the book to life.
And just before he began to read Boogie Boogie, Y’all to the students, Esperanza invited Michael Hernandez, 9, a student sitting in the audience, to the stage to create beats for him on a bongo set. Hernandez, Esperanza shared, was his nephew and inspired one of the three characters in the book.
“Boom, boom, boom,” Hernandez’s hands tapped one after another on the drums as Esperanza began to read and move his head to the rhythm. “Boogie boogie, y’all. The city boogied all day. Busy, busy, busy, till one kid stopped to say, woah, woah, woah! Look at the art on the wall.”
Taking place was an immersive literary experience organized by Start Lighthouse, a non-profit organization with a mission to end book deserts in the Bronx. The organization, co-founded by Rina Madhani, a former elementary school teacher who taught in the Bronx, was launched in March 2020—amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
“My former students and their families began calling me and asked for help,” said Madhani, who is also executive director of Start Lighthouse. “They needed additional learning materials at home, especially during a time of widespread school and library closures. Many of them were still awaiting their tech devices, particularly in a borough that was not prepared for the transition towards remote learning.”
Around 96 percent of students at the Port Morris School of Community Leadership were economically disadvantaged, defined by the percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch at the time. And per Danielle Keane, principal of the school, 56 percent of her students were facing homelessness.
Not long after Madhani launched Start Lighthouse, she reached out to Keane to begin a collaboration with her school. Keane had been seeking resources for students, who were navigating the world of remote learning for the first time.
“I was going through emails and saw Rina’s email,” Keane said. “She was talking about books, and I was like, ‘if our kids need anything right now, it’s books.’”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Port Morris School of Community Leadership was a meal distribution site, where families came to the school every day to collect meals for their children. During this time, Start Lighthouse distributed 300 literacy kits to students and their families and connected with the community for the first time.
Since March 2020, Start Lighthouse has partnered with other schools in the Bronx, including the Port Morris School of Community Leadership, and has provided 7,634 brand-new, culturally diverse books to students, such as Like the Moon Loves the Sky by Hena Khan, Polly Diamond and the Magic Book by Alice Kuipers, and Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai—to name a few. It has provided over 300 hours of programming to support the literacy development of students and so far, has reached 3,017 students. The organization’s work is funded by foundation grants, individual contributions, corporate sponsorship, and donations. Last year, they received $94,000 through donations from publishing partners, such as Macmillan Publishers.
Among the programming led by the organization was Literary Adventures, co-founded by Madhani and Concetta Gleason, a Bronx native, and director of programming and curation at Start Lighthouse. Another was Woke Activists—a racial justice literacy program that was implemented into the curriculum at the Port Morris School of Community Leadership after the murder of George Floyd in June 2020. The program focused on creating a safe space for students to read and discuss topics of identity, race, racism, and social justice.
Before and after participating in its racial justice literacy program, Start Lighthouse administered reading proficiency tests for students in the program. To do this, Start Lighthouse utilized Fountas & Pinnell Literacy, an organization that provides assessments, classroom resources, interventions, professional books, and professional development to members.
“For students who participated, we found that 80 percent had grown to a reading level which would establish themselves as being on grade-level,” said Madhani.
Madhani and Gleason connected in the spring of 2021 when they were both participants at Communitas America’s accelerator program—an organization that supports organizations in under-resourced communities and entrepreneurs who want to create social change. When they realized their passion for increasing accessibility to books in the Bronx aligned, they began working together to bring Literary Adventures to life, which they launched in October 2021. Students in this program can pick three free, brand new multicultural books that reflect diverse characteristics and experiences relatable to them, or books reflecting topics that they were curious about.
“Our work is centered on bringing a sense of joy and excitement into the reading lives of students, both in school and at home,” said Gleason. “Watching students self-select titles has been so rewarding because they come to the stories with open hearts. Having an abundance of choices and the ability to choose three books allows them to dip into genres and subjects they would normally be too reticent to voice their interest in exploring or would have been unaware of previously.”
Bria Benbow, 11, a sixth-grade student at the Port Morris School of Community Leadership, said that through Start Lighthouse, she has read books on topics surrounding Black Lives Matter, disabilities, LGBTQ+, women’s rights, and more.
“Each book taught us about why we should love our hair, why we would love everything about ourselves,” said Benbow. “That’s my favorite because it really showed how much Start Lighthouse cares for us.”
Benbow added that another thing she has learned through the books is the importance of being kind to others.
“We have learned about mental health, like self-care, and to be kind to yourself,” she said. “And to treat people how we want to be treated.”
Literary Adventures goes beyond helping some of the youngest New Yorkers curate their in-home libraries and invites local authors and illustrators to schools, like Esperanza.
When Esperanza visited Port Morris School of Community Leadership in November, he spoke to three first-grade classes. Esperanza also carefully answered questions from students who eagerly raised their hands after he finished reading Boogie Boogie, Y’all. He explained the journey behind creating the book, such as the art and writing process, the importance of perseverance and supporting one another in their endeavors.
After each session, Esperanza asked the students to sign their names on a canvas resembling a graffiti wall, where he had so far collected more than 100 signatures. Students rushed near Esperanza after signing, asking him to autograph their notebooks.
The day after Esperanza’s visit to the school, Madhani and Gleason brought stacks of brand-new books to room 241, the school’s library. There were over five tables overflowing with books that displayed vibrant covers, as well as book displays on desks, and near windows in the library. From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., 28 classes from students in pre-kindergarten to eighth grade were given a purple handbag and told they could select three books.
Some of the books included King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes, a book about a boy who takes pride in his first day of kindergarten, Me & Mama by Cozbi A. Cabrera, on the celebration of a mother-daughter relationship, George by Alex Gino, a novel about a young transgender girl, and Standing on Her Shoulders by Monica Clark-Robinson, a book that empowers young girls as they learn more about women who laid the path for their own lives.
Upon entering the library, a few of the older students were skeptical, asking if the books were free.
“Absolutely,” said Madhani.
Students on this day walked away with 1,200 brand-new books to take home.
“Because of Start Lighthouse, this has been one of the first times that we have been to provide this number of books to students,” said Keane. “We are talking about 600 students.”
From June 2020 to August 2021, Start Lighthouse also implemented Woke Activists at the Port Morris School of Community Leadership.
Homework Helpers, a project led by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s team, partnered with Start Lighthouse when it implemented Woke Activists, where Start Lighthouse provided training to their volunteers. One of the volunteers they trained was Kaitlyn Lindtvedt, 24, who led the Woke Activists program.
“I jumped at the opportunity to work with Start Lighthouse because theirs was the first curriculum I’d ever seen that actually centered the kids,” said Lindtvedt. “Rina and the Start Lighthouse team have worked so hard to give their students a voice and watching Ms. Bridget Santiago’s students light up when they realized that our job was to listen to them talk about issues that mattered to them was something I’ll never forget.”
Bridget Santiago, 44, a fifth-grade teacher at Port Morris School of Community Leadership who teaches science and math, taught language arts during the 2020 to 2021 school year and appreciated how Lindtvedt got to know the students.
“Every week, my students and I would meet with Kaitlyn online,” Santiago said. “We would read books as a class and then there would be some sort of focus for that lesson, be it empathy or activism. Identity was a big one. And it was amazing to see the discourse that it brought out in my students in the classroom.”
Jonathan Soto, organizer for the Homework Helpers project, said that to connect Bronx youth to educational programming, especially as the pandemic continues to expose the deep educational inequities impacting Black and Brown families throughout the Bronx, Team AOC is excited for the continued partnership with Start Lighthouse.
“We look forward to addressing the Bronx’s book deserts through the distribution of literacy toolkits,” he said. “In order to honor the lived experiences of our students, we will aim to cultivate spaces where candid conversations about identity, race and racism will empower students to see their best selves reflected in our society.”
Currently, Start Lighthouse is training teachers to lead Woke Activists at the Port Morris School of Community Leadership beginning in January 2022. Also in 2022, Start Lighthouse has a goal to connect 4,000 Bronx public school students with 12,000 books.
“Childhood illiteracy is a national crisis,” said Madhani, describing statistics from Literacy, Inc.
“The stakes are high, particularly for our students in underserved communities. Now more than ever, we must confront the literacy gap.”