Samuel B. Huey Elementary School Principal John Spencer first met Barbara Smith, a volunteer for one of the kindergarten classes, in 2011. Smith was on a mission to restore the school’s library, which had been closed for more than 20 years.
Three years, 3,300 books and one unforgettable partnership later, she achieved her goal, and children were able to read in the Huey library once more.
Smith is a volunteer for the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children, an organization dedicated to reopening school libraries in West Philadelphia. Since it reopened its first library in 2009, the program, more commonly known as WePAC, has opened 17 school libraries and is currently running twelve.
“We do it because the graduation rate in Philadelphia is around a little over 60 percent and that’s just not acceptable, and we know that early reading skills and early writing skills are crucial,” Executive Director of WePAC David Florig said. “Giving [children] access to books and independent reading helps children achieve in school — and go on to graduate.”
Students at Huey were excited to experience their library for the first time.
“All the way up to third grade, the kids were wonderful,” said WePAC Volunteer Recruitment Coordinator Morgan Rogers Burns, who read her favorite children’s book, “The Puppy Who Wanted a Boy,” to the students. “They were completely interested, engaged and displayed a lot of emotional intelligence,” she said.
After the thrill of the opening, Huey students experienced a typical day at the school library last Thursday. Smith, the volunteer for WePAC who led the project to revive Huey’s library, began by reading “Corduroy” to the children, had them color in a picture of Corduroy and finished the session by helping them select books for independent reading. From now on, WePAC volunteers will staff the library one to two school days per week.
“It’s an orientation to a new experience, and we want them to be successful at it,” Smith said.
WePAC staff members hope that opening libraries will foster a love of reading in children, thus improving their reading abilities. Florig said that a child’s reading and writing skills at the third grade can predict whether or not they will graduate.
“To not have a library, to me, is criminal,” Huey reading specialist Sharon Bryant said. “If we can nurture that love of reading, this will trigger them to go to the public library.”
Bryant added that having a library has created a “positive psychological climate” at the school. Spencer said that he is “eternally grateful” for Smith’s persistence in opening the library.
WePAC staff said, however, that their efforts are simply a temporary measure and that their ultimate goal is to ensure that every school has a professional librarian.
“Every school, like every prison, should have a library staffed by a paid librarian, and that’s not happening,” Smith said. “The kids that are in kindergarten, first, second and third grade — that time cannot be made up for them.”
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In the future, WePAC hopes that the school district will provide a professional librarian that could assist children with books for research and provide afterschool access to the library. In the meantime, WePAC is looking for more volunteers and book donations.
“A second-grade girl said that this is the best library in the world, ” Florig said. “She checks out books not just for her to read but so she can read them to her little brother — that’s what we’re trying to do.”