This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Just nine school librarians work full-time in the School District of Philadelphia’s 218 schools. This can be disastrous for literacy development in poor neighborhoods, where families often don’t have books at home.
Studies are clear that students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, perform better academically when they attend schools with functioning libraries. A report from the Library Research Service found that states that gained school librarians showed greater increases in 4th-grade reading scores than states that lost librarians.
And the more library access that students in grades K-3 have, the more likely that they will graduate from high school.
Still, over the last decade, budget constraints have forced many schools to lay off or not replace librarians and to bolt the doors of their libraries, leaving students with even fewer opportunities to read books.
Henry C. Lea Elementary in West Philadelphia is one school working to make up for its lack of a librarian. The school’s last librarian left about four years ago, when school funding was cut.
To help fill the void, the administration at Lea weaves together community-led literacy and reading initiatives to meet students’ needs. Two days a week, volunteers from WePAC, the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children, run a library program at Lea for children in grades K-3.
“As much as we would like that to be a real library, it’s a library program,” said Sarah Joseph, WePAC’s library program manager.
Joseph emphasized the difference between WePAC’s program and a school library with a full-time certified librarian.
The program allows students in grades K-3 to visit the library once a week. There, volunteers read books to students and students are able to return and check out books.
WePAC, which operates library programs in 13 schools across West and Southwest Philadelphia, gathered parents and other community members to curate the books in the library and maintain an updated collection.
“The impact [of the library program] has been incredible,” said Christian Edge, Lea’s engagement coordinator. “[The students] get so excited about what books they get and what they want to read. They’re excited about the text, and that’s what we really want. We want to foster literacy and a love of reading.”
At the start of Black History Month, WePAC donated to Lea a Little Free Library, an outdoor structure that contains books. There are more than 10,000 Little Free Libraries in the world. At Lea, it’s in the school’s yard and resembles a large birdhouse. It operates on a “take a book, leave a book” system that encourages students to read in settings outside of the classroom. Once the library was in place, principal Jennifer Duffy painted it herself with birds and clouds.
“We’re always looking for new ways to expand kids’ access to books to get them more engaged in reading,” Joseph said.
“The little library will probably operate more as ‘take a book,’ and kids will have regular access to books on weekends and on days when we’re not in the library. Kids who are not maybe great on returning their books will have another chance,” she added.
Lea and the Penn Libraries of the University of Pennsylvania will make sure the Little Free Library remains stocked.
“The Penn libraries have been working very closely with WePAC to bring libraries to schools,” said Ansel George, a community outreach librarian with Penn Libraries.
“[What we do at Lea] is run a library program, not a library. We are aware of the limitations in the District’s budget, but we would like to eventually put ourselves out of business and get those librarians back. Volunteers and librarians are not the same,” said George.
George was planning to retire in 2015, but then decided not to after he heard of the opportunity to help expand Lea’s library.
“Since February 2015, we have increased the quality of books and we have modernized the selection and made it more contemporary,” George said.
In addition to maintaining the selection, George and other university volunteers have created other avenues for bringing the latest books to the shelves at Lea.
“During the holiday season, we created an Amazon registry with a book wish list,” said Ralph DeLucia, associate director of the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Programs at Penn.
“And we sent the list to a lot of people on Penn’s campus and alumni worldwide. We asked them to buy some books while they made their Christmas purchases to support kids’ learning.”
At the start of the month, 201 of the 534 listed books had been purchased.
“[The Graduate School of Education] has taken to this, and even students there and some undergrads are coming in between their classes to volunteer their time and read to kids,” DeLucia said.
“People have a connection here, and as we look to expand [the library program], we are raising awareness in the Penn community. A core group of people have already been here and they are helping to champion the mission of learning. That was the impetus behind [the book wish list].”
George hopes to expand the library program at Lea to include students in grades 4 through 8.
“In the meantime, we are making library cards for the upper grades so that they can come to the library to check out books,” he said.
In addition to the support of volunteers, Lea also benefits from the University’s “A Book a Day Program,” through which Lea and Penn Alexander school each receive two quality, hardcover books every week. Penn Libraries select the books to match the curricular needs of the schools.
Heidi Gross, Lea’s literacy consultant from Penn, has made efforts to increase students’ literacy through reading at home. Gross coordinated a program that allows children to take books home several times a year. At the end of January, each kindergartner took home Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, a colorful book about the alphabet by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault.
“It’s nice to have brand new books,” said Joseph. “At the very minimum, we are providing access to books that they might not have on a regular basis. We’ve found that only one-third of students in schools that we send our library programs to go to the public library.”
She added, “Our larger goal is to get kids excited about reading and to see the library as a place that is fun. In September before we open up, they’re knocking on the door, and [during the school year] they are asking when they get to go to the library again.”
The concerted effort to increase students’ access to books at Lea demonstrates a community’s investment in improving student outcomes.
“Principal Duffy has revolutionized the way our partners work together,” said Edge. “They communicate effectively to increase opportunities for our kids. It has been a group effort.”
“I keep thinking, what would this look like without WePAC and without the volunteers?” asked George. “These are hundreds of thousands of kids. If WePAC decided they were done with this, what would happen?”