West Philly group seeks to expand literacy in district schools

Posted: January 23, 2014

EACH OF Pennsylvania's 26 state prisons is mandated by law to employ a librarian with a master's degree and to have a large collection of books and periodicals. But no state law requires the same for public schools.

"I think it's backward," said David Florig, executive director of the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children, a nonprofit promoting childhood literacy in West Philly. "Early reading is key to success in school and staying on track."

Only 11 of 212 schools in the Philadelphia School District have libraries. That, according to Florig, is problematic for Philly's kids, their prospects and the city's future.

The 10-year-old organization, commonly referred to as WePAC, has taken it upon itself since 2009 to reopen and staff 16 libraries in West Philadelphia elementary schools, Florig said.

Three of the schools where WePAC opened libraries were shuttered in recent rounds of closures ordered by the district. WePAC operates 12 school libraries currently, and will open its newest this week.

The organization, solely funded by private donors, will open a library tomorrow morning at Samuel Huey School on Pine Street near 52nd. Including the 585 kids at Huey, WePAC-operated libraries will serve more than 5,000 students, Florig said.

WePAC, with its four-person staff and hundreds of volunteers, has also collected 50,000 books to stock its libraries. Additionally, it runs after-school newspaper clubs and has established a new program called "Little Free Libraries," based on a national book-sharing movement.

Outdoor waterproof structures resembling large birdhouses - the "Little Free Libraries" - are stocked with books and placed throughout West Philadelphia. Children may borrow a book or leave one for others to read.

Phillip DeLuca, principal of Samuel Gompers School in Overbrook, said in-school libraries are vital to school communities. WePAC opened a library in 2011 at Gompers and established a school newspaper, the Tiger Times. One year later, DeLuca joined WePAC's board.

"To me, the kids are happier with books in their hands," DeLuca said. Students are "excited about writing for a newspaper and seeing their friends in the paper."

The libraries offer children an opportunity to select the books they want to read, not just the books assigned by their teachers.

"I know having that library is much better than not having that library," said DeLuca, calling the library "an unbelievable blessing."

Huey principal John Spencer is equally appreciative of the nonprofit.

"We need organizations like WePAC. It actually helps in this tight budget," he said. "I probably wouldn't be able to open a library at all, because I wouldn't have the resources to organize all of this and to put it together."

Twitter: @ReginaMedina

Online: ph.ly/DNEducation

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