West Philadelphia nonprofit opens 12th public school library

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Samantha Coggin

Last summer Heston Elementary School Principal Icilyn Wilson-Greene received a phone call from the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children (WePac) about an opportunity to restore the school’s library.

It was a welcome call because a large and growing number of Philadelphia public elementary school students don’t have access to a school library or a certified school librarian, and Heston was struggling to keep its own library doors open.

Eight months later, on Leap Day, the new Heston library opened and classes of students streamed in and out of their new literary digs where hundreds of books and colorful paintings now fill the walls.

Wilson-Green said she thanks WePac, not just for the new addition to his school, but to the community at large.

“This is the only library available in this area,” Wilson-Green said. “I have watched, year after year, library after library close.”

Heston is the 12th school that the eight-year-old nonprofit has opened in West Philadelphia in the past three years. WePac has also donated over 33,000 books to local school libraries.

Wilson-Greene said she always appreciated the beautiful space of the school library, which dominates at the very center of the school building with windows facing every classroom on the first and second floors. But, the school could not afford the upkeep of reading material or the cost of staffing a librarian.

WePac fills those needs through its use of over 100 volunteers citywide who visit a variety of schools weekly. The organization trains them to become educated librarians, and then deploys them to schools to act as school librarians and to read to students. WePac also provides a program called “Literacy in the Classroom” where it offers teacher assistance in Language Arts classes.

WePac is privately funded and receives several donations to furnish the libraries it sets up. It offers its services at no cost to the schools or the District.

Lewis C. Cassidy Elementary, a neighboring school to Heston that recently received a WePac library, decided to hold a book drive and donate the proceeds to Heston’s new library. Cassidy ended up donating over 1,500 books to Heston.

David S. Florig, executive director at WePac, said that “the majority of West and Southwest Philadelphia schools do not have the staff to run their library so instead, it just sits there closed.

“Our organization’s main focus will be on [providing] literacy in the elementary schools and providing literacy-based programs.”