April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Despite Citywide Cuts, West Philadelphia Alliance for Children Opens 18th School Library

David Brown, executive director of WePAC

David Brown, executive director of WePAC

“Growing up as a kid in West Philly, libraries were my sanctuary,” says David Brown, the executive director of the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children (WePAC), a nonprofit organization that staffs and reopens elementary school libraries in West and Southwest Philadelphia.

On February 3, 2015, Brown was on site at West Philadelphia’s Andrew Hamilton Public Elementary School to officially reopen the school’s closed school library, the 13th one WePAC has reopened in West and Southwest Philadelphia since 2009. The organization has helped to open 18 school libraries overall in the School District of Philadelphia (SDP), which has faced widespread shuttered facilities and licensed media specialist staff reductions. Approximately 95 percent of SDP schools lack a school library program, according to Deb Kachel, co-chair of the legislation committee for the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association.

WePAC focuses on grades K−4 and is partnered with the Philadelphia literacy coalition READ! by Fourth, a “citywide effort that aims to boost the share of students entering 4th grade, reading at grade level by 2020,” according to its website. One of WePAC’s initiatives has been to open the district’s school libraries by offering books, library volunteer staff, literacy programs, read alouds, and author visits. The nonprofit’s ambitions include focusing on specific outcomes resulting from its program. “There are some kids who have been in our program since 2009,” says Brown. “[Our libraries] see 6,000 kids a week, so we need to be able to track that and measure the program’s impact on reading skills.”

Brown knows, first-hand, how libraries can change a life. He’d spent his formative years in West Philadelphia during the 1970s. “Gangs were prevalent… I happened to survive a drive by, [which] scared me off the street and scared me into reading. I have been in libraries ever since,” he says. After school as a kid, says Brown, he would go straight to the library and then right back to home. He eventually went on to become the newspaper editor at Philadelphia’s Central High School, as well as at Pittsburg’s Duquesne University. After graduating, he joined an advertising agency in Philadelphia as a writer—which led him to work he’s doing now. He thanks the close-encounter drive-by for changing his course in life. “A bullet saved my life,” he says.

The Philly situation

SDP’s situation wasn’t always so dire. In 1991, there were 176 certified librarians in SDP, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Today, there are 11 licensed media specialists serving 218 schools in the entire district. Ten percent of all school library jobs have been lost in the last four years, says Kachel in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The eighth largest school district in the nation, SDP serves over 206,000 students, according to December 2014 data on the SDP website, and has seen over 5,000 jobs cut in the last three years. Sixty percent of the students in the district are unable to read at grade level, and there is 87 percent poverty among the students, says Kachel.

Ongoing school budget cuts in Philadelphia have made national headlines, yet small minorities of principals, including Laureal Robinson of Spring Garden Elementary, have opted to make having a school librarian a priority, says The Philadelphia Inquirer. Spring Garden Elementary has no full-time counselor or nurse, but in September 2014, five years after she’d began her tenure as school principal, Robinson hired a certified librarian to work three days a week.

Robinson’s story is an exception to the rule. “We’re soon approaching a time where a whole generation of kids will have gone through school without a school library,” Kachel adds. “In terms of school libraries, are we [Philadelphia] becoming a third world country?”


The staff of WePAC

WePAC FIGhts to reopen school libraries

When WePAC partners with a school and opens a library, the entire process takes about six to eight months from start to launch, Brown says. Schools are screened for participation in the program, and Brown looks for certain criteria to indicate that the facility is a good match for the program. Such criteria include the physical state of the space at the school, whether there is good community partnership between the school principal and the surrounding community, whether there is a critical mass of school library volunteers to keep the library staffed, and the school’s book collection.

In West Philadelphia, there are 37 school library facilities. For WePAC to reopen the library at Andrew Hamilton, the entire books collection had to be weeded—and much of it replaced—because it was “outdated to the point of being politically incorrect and racist,” says Brown. For the library at Andrew Hamilton, he wanted new library books that contained characters that resemble the largely African American kids who attend the school. Diverse titles aren’t always the sort of books that are donated, he added.

The nonprofit depends entirely on in-kind and cash donations, and to keep a library open for one to two days a week costs between $15,000 and $20,000 over the course of a 10-month period. Some of the reopened libraries only operate after school, while others serve students during school hours, depending on the volunteer staffing availability.

“What we’re trying to do now, during the second half of the school year,” explains Brown, “is [figuring out] summer slide prevention for those kids who have really excelled at reading.”

He emphasizes that reopening school libraries with volunteer staff cannot replace full-time certified librarians. “We see ourselves as a stopgap, not as a solution.” However, he says, “Someone needs to take ownership and responsibility.”

Carolyn Sun About Carolyn Sun

Carolyn Sun was a news editor at School Library Journal. Find her on Twitter @CarolynSSun.

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  1. Chuck Scott says:

    It’s good to know that someone is doing something about the state of libraries and really, education as a whole. Philly is a huge challenge. Like this guy says, they’re just a stopgap and something permanent must be done.

    We realized that too and decided that with the trend toward laptops and mobile devices, trying to force an old school library on kids from today’s generation just wouldn’t work. It would be a losing battle, and in 5-10 years, we’d be left with archaic libraries that no one was using.

    We kept as many books as possible (we didn’t throw out a lot of books like “Mr. Brown” did. You can still find plenty of classic children’s and adult books in our selection.)

    We had to make the realization that libraries were not places with books. Libraries were learning centers. Information centers. When the internet came along, it decentralized where the information and learning happened. The trick is to bring the learning back to the library or else you are going to be irrelevant very quickly.

    We tried to make our library as tech-rich as possible, and ready for the future. Meaning, we can’t predict what learning will be like in 1-2 decades, but we want our library to be ready for it. We did a few things to help guarantee that:

    *Split the library in half (basically). Half of it is now a teamwork area, where people (mainly students) are allowed to talk, debate, argue and brainstorm. It often gets a bid loud here, so we have installed special wall systems that absorb some of the sound. But this really makes a difference. You see kids interacting with each other, and not typing away with their thumbs on their cell phone. We used these accoustical walls (but with a cooler design for young adults): Tranquil Walls

    *Doubled the amount of computers, but a lot of these were tablets. When I walk into a library and see a desktop computer, it’s usually turned off, because the young generation doesn’t use desktops. I’ve had kids tell me they didn’t know what it is. I’ve had kids try to “touch” the desktop monitor like a touch screen on a phone or tablet… and get frustrated when they can’t “swipe” to another screen! Clearly there is something wrong here!

    *Along with the computers and tablets, we re-wired the entire library (except most of the book racks themselves). We installed a floor that lets you run cables inside of it. We lost approximately 2 inches of ceiling height doing this, but the entire library is now wired for power, data and interactive video. We feel this in itself might have added 10-20 years of life on the library by keeping it flexible to grow. The floor I am talking about can be seen here: Netfloor USA

    *Re-educated our librarians and volunteers on new technology, but we also created a two-way data flow. Yes, it’s important to have certified librarians and media specialists, but the fact is, these certifications are often outdated the moment you get them. The fact is, the general public (read: our volunteers) often know more about new tech, new apps and new websites than the “official” library staff does. Why not open the flow of communication so even our certified staff can learn new tricks?

    I don’t know if this organization (WePAC) has the funds for some of these measures, since they run on donations, but I would suggest they take a look at some of these items. Some of them are actual products and require some renovation, but some are really just changing the way you see your library and its purpose in the community. You really do need to keep up with the changing times now more than ever.