Laid-off Philadelphia teacher sets sights on rebuilding school libraries

Callie Hammond stands by the old card catalog files at the closed library at Rowen Elementary. Hammond has started Library Build, which aims to renovate and staff urban schools with certified librarians. ( Charles Fox / Staff Photographer )
Callie Hammond stands by the old card catalog files at the closed library at Rowen Elementary. Hammond has started Library Build, which aims to renovate and staff urban schools with certified librarians. ( Charles Fox / Staff Photographer )
Posted: October 19, 2011

The library at Rowen Elementary School is musty and outdated - a locked room used for storage and occasional meetings, a repository of yellowing, untouched books.

But Callie Hammond has big dreams for the room, whose leather-bound encyclopedias were printed in 1986, the year she was born.

Hammond sees the West Oak Lane public school as a launching pad for Library Build, a nonprofit group she recently started to renovate and staff school libraries with fellows in the Teach for America model.

The plan is to start in city elementary schools with no library. Library Build would recruit and pay library science graduates in exchange for a two-year service commitment to city schools.

"Libraries do amazing things," said Hammond, who was a Philadelphia School District middle school teacher until she was laid off in June.

Rowen, which educates 450 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, is ahead of many city neighborhood schools; it met state standards and made "Adequate Yearly Progress" for several years running. But 83 percent of its students are considered low income, and the school lost 15 staffers to the Philadelphia School District's $629 million budget gap this year.

Its library has been shuttered for more than 10 years.

"We're extremely limited in what we're able to do beyond the basics," said James Murray, Rowen's principal.

Reviving the library dovetails with one of Murray's goals. He came to Rowen from Martin Luther King High School, where many students struggled with basic skills.

"I asked myself, 'How can we have no more 9th and 10th graders reading at a second-grade level?' " Murray said. "This is a vehicle to make it happen. Literacy is key to producing a great school and young people who are able to compete."

The idea for Library Build began to take shape when Hammond interned at a district elementary school that lacked many things considered basics elsewhere - a playground, abundant supplies. Its library was a room with few books, few computers, and no staff.

Even as a young teacher, Hammond realized the benefits of school libraries, so she took a leap, writing a business plan, researching libraries in Philadelphia, and applying for nonprofit status.

Hammond said she knew of no other organization like hers in the country.

Another city nonprofit organization, the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children, has done some work in this area, but concentrates its efforts on West and Southwest Philadelphia, and it does not have Hammond's focus on recruiting and funding librarians as well as reopening libraries.

Research shows that library access matters. Students who have a library at school tend to perform better on assessments than those who do not. Libraries can encourage children to love reading and think of it not just as a chore to be handled in the classroom.

When Hammond was laid off from teaching social studies and science to nonnative English speakers at Wilson Middle School at the end of last school year, she figured it was time to work on Library Build full time.

These days, she divides her time between working on grant applications - Library Build received its first award, $10,000 from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation - and organizing the collection at Rowen. She is also studying for her master's degree in public administration at the University of Pennsylvania.

Hammond hopes to reopen Rowen's library and place the first fellow in the library next fall. That would be a real reversal of a trend that has long held.

Years ago, every district school had a functioning library and certified librarian. Over the years, though, many principals cut librarians and shut libraries to save money.

The problem is not unique to Philadelphia - faced with budget crunches, districts across the country have cut staff and closed libraries.

In Philadelphia, just 19 percent of city public schools have a certified librarian as of this year, according to the Association of Philadelphia School Librarians. The district is down to 48 librarians, and lost 15 last year alone.

Going forward, schools will increasingly rely on outside organizations to fund things such as libraries, Hammond said.

"Even if we convince the school district to hire someone, then money gets tight and the next year the library goes away again," Hammond said. "It's not sustainable."

Energetic and ambitious, Hammond is hyperfocused on her goal. She zoomed through the library on a recent visit, pointing out books from the 1970s and the worn wooden card catalog, whose drawers are stuffed with cards for books no longer on the shelves.

"We're hoping to replace it with a computerized version," she said.

Then it was on to the next big idea.

"I feel like this can be part of a bigger movement that I want to start to focus on literacy and libraries," Hammond said.

Carol Heinsdorf, a veteran district librarian and president of the Association of Philadelphia School Librarians, called Hammond's work "a noble cause, and one that our association shares."

Her group has put forth a "School Library Reform Proposal" asking officials to put certified librarians in district schools.

"Our democracy needs informed citizens, and libraries are a way to cultivate informed citizens," Heinsdorf said. "They are a way to make sure that students graduate from high school, to make them college-ready."


Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com, or @newskag on Twitter. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles

 

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