West Philly libraries, key to student success, struggle to exist

With the help of volunteers, the Lea School's library now has limited hours for kindergarten through second grade students

· April 20, 2014, 4:25 pm   ·  Updated April 21, 2014, 12:19 am

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While Penn students might dread their weekend visits to Van Pelt Library, it is clear from the crowded cubicles and GSRs that the University would lose a valuable resource if its doors were closed. This is exactly the situation in which Philadelphia elementary school students find themselves. Because of extensive budget cuts, students are locked out of their school libraries without access to books or trained librarians.

The School Reform Commission passed a “Doomsday Budget” in late May last year, in which $304 million was cut from Philadelphia schools for the 2013-14 fiscal year. As a result, about 3,800 school employees were laid off, 24 schools were closed and money to extracurricular programs was eliminated.

Libraries, however, have been seeing cuts for over a generation, WePAC Volunteer Recruitment Coordinator Morgan Rogers Burns said. Under an increasingly tight budget, chances of regeneration seem slim. “When it comes to cutting line items for a budget, there are ways to rationalize away a librarian,” Rogers Burns said. She stressed this was her own opinion, not the stance of her organization.

A new Penn Libraries initiative is looking to expand students’ access to school libraries. Ancil George , recently named the Community Outreach Librarian at Van Pelt, is organizing efforts to get Penn students involved in expanding operations at the library of the Lea School on the 4700 block of Locust Street. Currently, with the help of a volunteer-based nonprofit called West Philadelphia Alliance for Children, the library is open on Wednesdays and Thursdays to students in kindergarten through second grade . George hopes to open the library for more days a week and to more grades, since the school serves children through eighth grade.

Rogers Burns and other advocates for school libraries argue that there are many things that a school library provides that can’t be substituted. “The main thing that a library allows students to do is self-direct their own learning,” she said. She pointed out that although this might be possible in a public library, young students rely on adults to take them to these facilities, and classroom libraries simply don’t have as wide of a selection of books as large school libraries do . “If it’s not happening at the school, there’s no promise or guarantee that it’s going to happen outside of school,” she added.

Studies also show that students who don’t have this access to books and reading education are less likely to graduate high school. A 2011 study by Donald Hernandez found that, of 4,000 students tested, 23 percent of third-grade students below National Assessment of Educational Progress reading standards later dropped out of high school. Only nine percent of third-grade students who had basic skills in reading, and only four percent of third-grade students with skills rated “proficient” dropped out of high school. A 2013 research update published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private philanthropic organization which advocates for disadvantaged children, concluded that studies continue to support the hypothesis that third-grade reading proficiency may predict graduation rates. As a result, WePAC and Penn Libraries is currently focusing on granting lower elementary school grades access to the library at Lea, although they hope to expand access to older students if given the proper resources.

WePAC and other community groups involved in school libraries and reading programs are also working to get students enthusiastic about reading. “In elementary school we would go to the library, and it was this great exciting thing ... it was the highlight of our week,” College junior Katelyn Behrman , a co-director of the Penn Reading Initiative, remembered. She has noticed throughout her involvement with PRI, in which members tutor elementary school children once a week, that without the drive for reading that a library can encourage in students, they sometimes treat the subject like geometry, thinking, “‘When am I ever going to use reading?’” she said.

“If a kid is struggling with reading in first grade, in four to five years, that gets to be a kid who thinks that school is not for him because it’s too hard,” Kate Mills said. Mills organizes the Book Choosing program at Lea coordinated by Garden Court Community Association, during which each April, students get to pick out their own books to keep, and start or add to their own home libraries.

Dylan Vizzachero , a College senior who volunteers at the Lea library once a week through WePAC, recalled the connection he felt with a student at Lea when the student confided in him that neither of his parents could read. Vizzachero assured him, “Now you’re here ... maybe one day you can read to your parents.”

“Until the school district comes and takes this off our hands, we’ll just keep opening libraries,” Rogers Burns said. So far, her organization has reopened 12 school libraries for one to two days a week. If the Lea library opens for more than two days a week with the help of Penn volunteers, it could become a model for the rest of the schools that WePAC works in, Rogers Burns said.

“All we can do as an institution is provide Band-Aids ,” said College senior Kate Herzlin , the outreach coordinator at the Kelly Writers House . “But we can’t stop the bleeding. We can only cover it up.”

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