Enter a small organization called the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children (WePAC). It was helping schools in the community and noticed that more and more libraries were sitting dark with dusty shelves and closed doors.
The organizers decided to bring light into the darkness, one public school library at a time.
"We were working in a range of areas at the time in West Philly, everything from tax preparation to step teams. But we had always worked in the area of child literacy," said David Florig, WePAC's executive director. "When we found out some years ago that many of the schools with whom we worked didn't have functioning libraries, we thought this would be a perfect focus."
Focusing only on reopening and staffing (with volunteers) once-shuttered public school libraries, WePAC plugged into a growing unmet need within our schools, particularly at the elementary level. Funding cuts and staff shifts have forced many schools to surrender their libraries (and their paid librarians) to other priorities. To have a group come in, clean up, stock, and then staff these vacant havens was too good an offer to pass up.
One library quickly became two. Two became four, and now WePAC has opened 10 public elementary school libraries and donated 30,000 books since its beginning in 2009. It currently circulates 2,500 books per month to students and is opening its 11th library at the William Longstreth Elementary School this week. The Longstreth library had been closed for 10 years, the space given over to a conference area. Now, its agenda will be opening young minds through reading.
This exposure at the elementary grade level is particularly crucial according to a recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation titled, "Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters." It asserts that the process of students dropping out "begins long before a child gets to high school." Citing statistics from the National Research Council, the report maintains that "the chances of a child graduating from high school can be predicted with reasonable certainty by knowing a student's reading skill at the end of third grade."
So being able to read that ducks quack and dogs don't helps in shaping the future. And for children whose families don't set aside a story time, not having such a routine in school undercuts achievement, which our society simply can't afford.
Now, it would be a stretch to assert that a school without a library is one destined for failure. But for many kids, introduction to a library happens in schools or it doesn't happen at all, according to Siobhan Reardon, president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia. "Schools work on the rigors of reading. Libraries work on the love of reading," she says. "If a child struggles with reading, then the last place they would go outside of school would be a library. Introducing them to what worlds they can explore in a school library makes them more comfortable exploring the broader universe that exists in all libraries."
For its part, the Free Library assists groups like WePAC in helping to develop and obtain the right books for the libraries their volunteers run, so what is read matches the curriculum. A diversity of stories is gathered that reflects the cultural, sex, age, interest, and experience of the students.
Right now, the volunteer libraries run on as regular a schedule as the resources will allow. The more volunteers that can be trained, the more libraries can be opened. Not surprisingly, there's a growing list of schools with empty spaces waiting to be reborn. But even with a less-than-ideal schedule, every hour a school library is open offers the promise that a mind can be strengthened for the future. A closed one guarantees a failure yet to come.
David W. Brown is chairman of the board of advisers for 900 AM WURD, Philadelphia's only black-owned talk radio station. He can be contacted at DBrown@wurdradio.com For more information, visit www.WePAC.org