Erskine Reeves is the director of a program affiliated with Proviso East High School in which students who successfully complete the 1,500-hour program get a barber’s license along with their high school diploma.

The 30 students from Proviso East and West high schools take classes in their respective buildings in the morning and then head to the Erskine Reeves Barber Academy in Bellwood at 1 p.m. where they divide their time between classroom work and hands-on time in the salon where they develop their haircutting skills.

“The state of Illinois tests you on the theory of haircutting,” explained Reeves, owner of the academy and director of the program. “In the classroom we go through the 23 chapters of a textbook, which covers topics like disease control, sanitation, anatomy, the history of barbering, texturing, relaxing, how to establish a market and how to run a business.”

In the salon adjacent to the classroom, students gain the skills and experience they need by actually cutting people’s hair. Customers are very willing to allow learners to practice on them because a haircut at the academy is only $8. Combining practical experience with community service, his students transform the cafeteria at Roosevelt Middle School in Maywood into a barbershop and give free haircuts to the students.

Ken Dail, a Proviso junior, got interested in barbering by hanging around Jeff Russell’s Millionaire Barber Shop on Roosevelt Road. When he started the program last fall, he thought he would be learning only a skill. 

“I thought it would be just cutting hair,” he said, “but I’m learning a lot about things like women’s hair and hair braiding, as well as all the things we learn from the book.”

Reeves himself first learned barbering by doing it and only much later did he go to school to be certified by the state. 

“I started cutting hair when I was 12 years old,” he recalled. “A boy in my class was being teased about his haircut, so I talked him into letting me fix the situation. I used my father’s professional haircutting tools, which he had received from his uncle. Needless to say, I didn’t know what I was doing and we had to go to a local barber to finish the job. I’ve been cutting hair ever since.”

Reeves’ father taught him everything he knew about cutting hair, and when Erskine got to be better than his father, he pestered local barbers to teach him what they knew and let him practice on actual clients. 

“On my 15th birthday,” at a tiny shop on 21st and St. Charles, “[a barber] called and asked if I wanted to cut hair for him. I was able to persuade the counselor at Proviso West to give me permission for a work release from school after the morning classes and for two years I worked there — illegally — Monday through Friday from 1 till 8 p.m. My parents said they were OK with the arrangement as long as I kept my grades up.”

After graduating from high school, Reeves did go to a barber school to get his certification from the state. But on the whole it was by experience that he learned the craft as well as the skills to run a business. 

“Experience,” he said, “has equal value with book knowledge. With experience, the book knowledge becomes real because you’re able to directly connect what the terms in the book mean.”

And it was mainly his 26 years of experience that qualified him to run a haircutting academy and teach an off-campus course for which students receive credits toward graduation and state certification.

He has worked as an educator for companies like Revlon and African Pride, has won three national barber competitions, has cut hair for members of the Bulls and right now is the barber for the Judge Mathis Show. He owns both a barbershop and a salon in the Stratford Mall in Bloomingdale.

His experience has taught him that being good at cutting hair is only half the job. 

“My slogan here at the academy,” he explained, “is cultivating the entrepreneurial barber in you. The difference in my career and some other barbers is the business approach I take — the understanding that when I’m behind the chair, it’s not about me. It’s about the atmosphere I create for the customer. Half of it is cutting hair. The other half is relationship building.”

“If you’re in the business of barbering,” he tells his students, “get it in your head that you’re in the business of sales. You’re selling yourself. You are creating a brand, and that’s going to carry across to everything.”

His barbering partnership with the two Proviso high schools came into being when he was cutting a lady’s hair one day and struck up a conversation in his usual attempt to form relationships with clients. He talked about his dream of giving back to the community in which he grew up and wanting to do something with the high school. It turned out the lady in the chair was Dr. Nettie Collins-Hart, the superintendent of D209.

“You never know who’s going to be sitting in your chair,” Reeves said. “It was like God was waiting on me to do what I needed to do.” 

He showed her the research he had already done, how the College of DuPage was running a program that could serve as a model. She liked the concept, and that led to Reeves pitching his idea to the school board. He tells the story to his students as an example of the “other half” of barbering, the way you represent yourself to your customers.

Not all of his students in the D209 program are planning on being barbers for the rest of their working lives, but that’s OK with him because, in addition to learning how to cut hair, they are learning a business model that is translatable to anything they do. In addition, barbering can be a fallback when workers get laid off in a bad economy or a way to supplement income from a part-time job.

Dail said, “I figured barbering was a good profession. I plan to go to college to learn how to work a sound board. If my key profession, which is music, doesn’t work out, this could be a plan B.”