NERD SQUAD founder Alexandra Hicks (center) reads "Jaden Toussaint the Greatest" with children in the after-school literacy program at Blackwell Community Center. (Photo courtesy Alexandra Hicks)
When Alexandra Hicks was a little girl, she dreamed of visiting China. Forgoing an expensive international trip, her mom surprised her with a day trip to Baltimore’s Chinatown instead. On the train ride into the city, she remembers her mother saying, “I can't take you all the way to China right now, but I can give you this,” handing her daughter a book about the imperial country. “Read it; it’ll take you there.”
Decades later, Hicks is helping Richmond children take the same kind of intellectual journeys, using books as the vehicle for their imaginations. Her initiative, NERD SQUAD, is an after-school program aimed at boosting literacy and cultivating a love of reading in elementary school kids. “I want NERD SQUAD to show kids that it’s cool to love a “nerdy” activity, like reading,” Hicks says. “There are so many ways that reading can open doors, and I want children in my community to experience that.”
NERD SQUAD will launch its pilot program next week at the Blackwell Community Center, overseen by the City of Richmond's Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities department.
Over the course of six weeks, children age 6 to 11 will gather for the program once a week after school and read the same book together as a group. The literary lineup includes “Sugar” by Jewell Parker Rhodes, “Jaden Toussaint the Greatest” by Marti Dumas and “Nelson Beats the Odds” by Richmond author Ronnie Sidney II. The books, many featuring black children as the main characters, were chosen strategically; Hicks hopes the students will see a reflection of themselves in what they read. ‘When I was growing up, there weren’t a lot of books whose characters looked like me,” she says. “These books bridge that gap and help the kids relate to what they’re reading.”
The children will also receive notebooks so that they can write down their thoughts and observations as they finish each chapter. “That’s going to strengthen reading comprehension skills,” says Hicks.
Glynes Cheatham, Blackwell Community Center’s supervisor, is a 38-year veteran of the facility. When Hicks approached her about implementing the NERD SQUAD at Blackwell, Cheatham jumped at the chance. “Do you ever notice a child’s face when someone is reading to them or they’re reading themselves?” she asks me, her alto voice laced with wonder. “Their faces light up when there's a funny part, and if there’s a sad part in the story, you can see them react to that, too. Reading is a passport to new worlds; that’s why this program is so important.”
According to the Department of Education, Richmond Public Schools students had a 60 percent average pass rate on the reading portion of the 2015-16 Standards of Learning tests (SOLs), compared to an 80 percent average pass rate statewide.
But the test scores are only part of the reason Hicks, whose 12-year-old daughter, Jalilah, is an RPS student, is trying to foster a love of reading in young people. “I’m not an ‘SOL parent,’ so to speak,” she says. “Testing and scores are important, but they aren’t everything.” While some of the students in NERD SQUAD come from less privileged backgrounds, Hicks wants to teach them “your environment doesn’t have to define you. The books show them that they can do and be anything, no matter where they come from.”
Feast RVA, co-founded by Josh Epperson and Johnny Hugel in 2011, “funds the small steps that make big ideas happen,” Epperson explains.
The nonprofit seeks Richmonders with creative, yet “practical, impactful” ideas aimed at moving the city forward. A committee then chooses three ideas that go on a ballot, and, at recurring dinners held at glave kocen art gallery, attendees vote on the winning idea. At the 17th Feast RVA Dinner last month, NERD SQUAD took home the top prize, a $500 grant.
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Hicks at the 17th Feast RVA Dinner, held at glave kocen gallery on Sept. 11, 2016. Hicks' childhood literacy imitative, NERD SQUAD, won a $500 grant at the event. (Photo by Free Egunfemi)
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Hicks (right) at the Feast RVA Dinner with Free Egunfemi (left), who designed NERD SQUAD's winning presentation and has been a supporter of the program since its inception. (Photo by Free Egunfemi)
“If you live in Richmond, you know education is a struggle, especially in underserved communities,” says Epperson. “So, when we see initiatives that stem from education, we perk up. A reading program for kids in Richmond, who may have a less privileged education, we thought would make an excellent supplement to RPS and other public education tools.” He also touts Hicks’ slick presentation, saying it impressed many of the dinner guests by laying bare NERD SQUAD’s purpose and vision. Hicks tapped Free Egunfemi, Founder and CXO of Untold RVA, to design it.
Egunfemi has been a midwife of sorts in helping Hicks birth NERD SQUAD, an idea first conceived two years ago. “I knew immediately that this was something that the kids of Richmond need, so I started helping any way I could,” says Egunfemi, whose work uncovering Richmond’s hidden history and honoring the city’s slave ancestors is featured in a documentary released last month, produced by UnMonumental and the Association of Independents in Radio. “There is power in reading, in knowledge, and that’s what NERD SQUAD will do: equip kids with reading superpowers. So I wanted that to be reflected in the presentation.”
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Image courtesy Free Egunfemi/NERD SQUAD
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Image courtesy Free Egunfemi/NERD SQUAD
The program will serve about 20 children, and Hicks has already lined up a half dozen volunteers to read to and with the youngsters. Their professions range from teachers to nurses, from small-business owners to insurance professionals. “You don’t have to be a teacher to help us,” Hicks says. “Anybody can help; all it takes is coming in, reading to the kids and spending some time with them.” She sees NERD SQUAD as her personal contribution to her community. “I’m one mom helping another mom, helping the kids I see down the street, trying to make the small connection that reading is powerful.”
Hicks grew up on Richmond’s North Side, where her mom owned a bookstore called Missing Pages. “It was an Afrocentric store, and had a lot of books in it that no library around here carried; you’d have to go to D.C. to find them.” She’s planning to bring her mom’s legacy of literature love full circle by opening her own bookstore under the same moniker in the Manchester neighborhood next summer. When it opens, she’ll encourage her NERD SQUAD kids to visit. She says, “I’m going to tell them the same thing my mom told me: ‘A book can take you further than you ever imagined.’ ”