Librarian recruits Cornel West to Harlem school that could close

A dogged school librarian who runs a speaker series at his struggling Harlem school has recruited the provocative scholar Cornel West to be his next guest.

On Monday, West will visit Wadleigh Secondary School for The Performing and Visual Arts, which is on the city’s shortlist of schools that could be closed this year, as part of a series of initiatives led by the school’s longtime librarian, Paul McIntosh.

Over the years, McIntosh has been a bright spot amid Wadleigh’s challenges, maintaining a welcoming library that is a haven for students and attracting a diverse roster of luminaries to speak. Past visitors have included Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, “American Idol” winner Ruben Studdard, and local physicians and poets. The aim of the speaker series, McIntosh said, is to expose students to future possibilities and hook them on literature.

“We’ve tried to put young men and women in contact with people of substance from a number of disciplines,” McIntosh told me. He noted that many of the students he works with are “on the precipice of bad behavior.” He hopes that by connecting them to a variety of inspiring individuals, they can be redirected.

“If they just get a little bit of support they’ll be able to see the light and aim for their higher selves,” he said.

McIntosh said he met West at several activism events and recruited him to Wadleigh during April’s “Fight Back USA!” teach-in. He said his only guidance to West was that the scholar, who will join the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in 2012, try to motivate the students before him.

West has attracted attention for his radical politics and sometimes controversial statements. But McIntosh said he’s confident West will be a good influence for Wadleigh’s students, who will be joined by students from Frederick Douglass Academy II Middle School, also in the building, and representatives of the NAACP and Harlem community.

“As provocative as he is, he seeks to bring people together and to encourage and inspire them to seek a better life in all dimensions,” McIntosh said. “I really think he’s a person of courage.”

Teachers have been prepping students for West’s visit by sharing biographical readings about him and by sharing some of his shorter essays. There will be time for students to pose their own questions after his speech and, later in the day, there will be a small meet-and-greet in the library.

The high-profile visitor comes as Wadleigh awaits word about its future: The Department of Education has said it is weighing closing both Wadleigh and FDA II because of their academic performance. Wadleigh’s middle and high schools both got D’s on their progress reports this year, down from last year, and the school has come under scrutiny in recent years for its credit recovery practices.

McIntosh said he has been participating in Wadleigh’s effort to communicate to DOE officials that the school should get another lease on life. And Anthony Klug, Wadleigh’s UFT chapter leader, told me that he thought the school had improved since he started there eight years ago. But he said the school had no shortage of challenges, from losing teachers and guidance counselors to budget cuts to clashes with the DOE over use of the building to reduced enrollment.

Next year, Harlem Success Academy’s charter middle school is set to move into the building.

When schools are phased out, their libraries often sit empty, and librarians can be the first cut when the staff starts downsizing. But McIntosh said he is not as concerned about himself as he is about librarians as a class of educators.

“Librarians really are sort of under assault,” he said.  “I don’t know if we’re considered somewhat superfluous or what, but sometimes one doesn’t see the librarian as an integral — or crucial — part of the education of young people.”

In addition to carrying out the traditional roles of a librarian and hosting 25-plus speakers each year, McIntosh runs poetry and fiction clubs during students’ free periods and after school. He has also published three anthologies of poetry collected from students and speakers. The newest collection, “The Ringing Ear,” came out this month. And he has been recognized with a slew of prizes, including the national “I Love My Librarian Award.”

McIntosh quoted West as he explained why he does what he does within his school: “You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. You can’t save the people if you don’t serve the people.”

“My feeling is that these young people, with all of their confusion, are worthy of being saved for the sake of this community, for the sake of this nation, for the sake of humanity,” McIntosh said. “Who’s to say how they will contribute to the language of humanity? You never know.”