Posted July 10, 2013

Pedaling literacy: Temple physics education major delivers more than 1,000 books to North Philadelphia students

Temple student Jonathan Dasani sat at a computer Tuesday morning mapping out a bike route through Philadelphia. He planned to stop first in Brewerytown, then head east toward Kensington and return north to Hunting Park before the July sun reached its mid-afternoon peak.

Scorching temperatures, a 20 percent chance of rain and threatening traffic on narrow Philadelphia streets might dissuade the casual cyclist, but not Dasani. With a messenger bag filled with books slung over his shoulder and a colorful helmet to provide protection from the sun, the junior physics education major jumped on his bike and set out to complete his mission: to keep elementary students reading even when they’re not in school.

“If it rains tomorrow, I’ll put on a pair of swimming trunks,” said Dasani, book courier for Words on Wheels, a summer literacy program developed by TreeHouse books in North Philadelphia.

This month, Dasani, a self-proclaimed bookworm, will lead a group of volunteers as they make 360 bike trips to drop off books to children who live in the 19121 and 19122 area.

In a neighborhood in which children have limited access to libraries and bookstores, it’s common for students to lose some of their skills over summer vacation, says Lauren Macaluso Popp, TreeHouse Books’ summer camp coordinator.

“After having worked all year to establish a foundation, too many students don’t take the time to continue building those skills throughout the summer,” said Popp. “We developed Words on Wheels to make sure children continue learning all year long.”

According to a study by the International Reading Association, the average reading proficiency level of elementary students declines over the summer months. For some, a lack of summer reading can result in a cumulative loss of more than a years’ worth of literacy development.

“I’m not advocating for a year-round school system, but children and parents need to make the most of their summer vacation. It’s fun to climb a tree, but it’s even more fun to climb a tree and take a book up there with you,” said Dasani, who has been working with children since he graduated from Harriton High School located in Rosemont, Lower Merion Township.

Dasani began tutoring at TreeHouse in September 2011 after transferring to Temple from Drexel University, where he was studying to be a biochemical engineer. He now hopes to become a teacher, and is among the most dedicated students who volunteer their time at TreeHouse, said Popp. In addition to tutoring children from local elementary schools, he has worked as a team leader in charge of student tutors, volunteered to serve as a counselor at TreeHouse’s annual summer reading camp and coordinated the organization’s Work Ready component.

“I don’t receive credit hours, or money,” said Dasani. “It’s not about that for me at all. Teaching and working with kids is how I view my role as a human being. Teaching is not a profession; it’s a duty, it’s my responsibility to use my talents to give back to the community in this way. I don’t see how I could live with myself doing anything else.”

— Jazmyn Burton