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Partner groups, including the Panasonic Foundation, have contributed a total of $100,000 to the city's #NewarkReads effort.

Partner groups, including the Panasonic Foundation, have contributed a total of $100,000 to the city’s #NewarkReads effort.

Newark launches ‘Mayor’s Book Club’ in effort to promote reading among young people

The city of Newark is leading a charge to promote reading among residents, starting with a book club led by the mayor.

In conjunction with local philanthropies and the school district, Mayor Ras Baraka launched a new program Tuesday that will give free books to Newark middle-school students. It’s part of a larger initiative that the city is calling #NewarkReads, which will later expand to include younger students and adults and is meant to spark a citywide conversation about the importance of reading.

“Reading is not just something you do academically,” Baraka said at the kickoff event at Newark’s downtown library. “Reading is something you do to advance yourself personally, socially, intellectually, culturally.”

The effort is a partnership between the mayor’s office, the Newark Public Library, Newark Public Schools, the United Way of Essex and West Hudson, and the Panasonic Foundation. The Newark City of Learning Collaborative and Audible.com are also partners.

The partner groups have already committed $100,000 to the initiative, according to city officials, who added that they hope to eventually raise more private funding.

The effort’s first phase is the “Mayor’s Book Club,” which will start this month by giving 500 books to students in grades six to eight (as well as students in other grades who read books at those levels). Students, who can sign up online, will be able to pick up the books at library branches across the city, some of which will also host discussion groups and events tied to the books.

The featured books are “I Am Malala,” the true story of a Pakistani teenager’s fight to receive an education in the face of violent resistance from the Taliban, and Kwame Alexander’s “The Crossover,” a young adult novel about twin brothers who share a love of basketball.

“I’ve always been an avid reader, so I think getting back into the habit of reading like I used to when I was younger will be interesting,” said Catherine Esteves, an eighth-grade student at Robert Treat Academy Charter School who plans to read Malala Yousafzai’s memoir, which was co-written by Christina Lamb. “I think if [the city] advertises it well and gets people interested, many people will be excited about it.”

The mayor’s book giveaway is just the latest effort to encourage Newark students to read more — and to make it easier for them to get their hands on the latest books.

The United Way oversees a program called “My Very Own Library,” which provides books to more than 20,000 Newark Public Schools students per year. And the BRICK Education Network recently announced that it would place 1,500 free books in salons, laundromats, and other locations throughout South Ward.

#NewarkReads will continue in the fall when high school students will be eligible to receive free books and the mayor will lead “fireside chats” to delve into the reading selections. The following year, the city plans to expand the effort to promote reading among adults and children from birth to third grade.

The Panasonic Foundation is contributing $80,000 to the effort. Alejandra Ceja, the foundation’s executive director, said that students need strong reading skills to excel in all fields — even technology, which is Panasonic’s specialty.

“We recognize that we cannot just introduce students to a coding program if they don’t have the basic fundamentals,” Ceja said. “Literacy and reading is that key indicator of success that we all know about.”

Many Newark students struggle with reading. Last year, just over 34 percent of district students met or exceeded expectations in English on the state tests. Superintendent Roger León has promised to get more students to pass the tests and to ensure that all students can read competently by third grade. The city school board also recently voted to adopt a new reading curriculum for district schools.

At Tuesday’s kickoff event, León said the district will send students on field trips to libraries to sign up for cards and join the mayor’s reading program. León said that Baraka, a former high school principal, is the perfect person to spearhead the effort.

“He is our education mayor,” León said. “And as the superintendent of schools, I have no better partner in the work.”