The West Philadelphia Alliance for Children’s (WePAC) school library opening initiative, launched in September 2009 at two schools, now provides more than 3,100 students in 12 struggling schools and neighborhoods with access to a school library.
- Add B. Anderson School
- Rudolph Blankenburg School
- Lewis Cassidy School
- Cook-Wissahickon School
- Samuel Gompers School
- Edward Heston School
- Henry Lea School
- Joseph Leidy School
- Morton McMichael School
- William Longstreth School
- Samuel Powel School
- James Rhoads School
WePAC volunteers see kindergarten through fourth grade classes on a regular schedule in the libraries, read stories to the students, work with the school to align library activities with the school curriculum, have donated more than 33,000 books to those libraries, and circulate 2,500 books per month to students.
Students in schools served by WePAC have much in common:
- Most live in poverty. Median family income is below $20,000. Approximately 95% of the children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
- Neighborhood educational achievement is low. More than one-third of adults lack a high school diploma and nearly one-quarter cannot read or write at an elementary school level.
- Performance in school is poor. An astounding 80% of students score below grade level in reading or math. The great majority are below grade level in both. Only 38% of students in WePAC’s library schools scored “advanced or proficient” on the 2010 PSSA reading test.
WePAC library volunteers donated more than 10,196 hours of direct service to more than 3,100 students during the 2011-12 school year. School administrators have reported an increase in excitement about reading and books, improved academic performance, and enthusiastic responses from teachers about having a school library. One principal reported her belief that her school was raised out of empowerment status because of these literacy-based activities. Until schools find a way to add librarians, volunteers can fill part of the void left by their loss.
At William Longstreth School, one library opened by WePAC, the facility had been closed to students for more than ten years. At the Morton McMichael School, the library had been closed for an entire generation!
In February 2012, WePAC opened the school library at Edward Heston School. Students at the nearby Lewis Cassidy School, where WePAC runs the library program, engaged in a book drive to support Heston, and collected and donated more than 2,000 books. In addition, WePAC has launched a pilot classroom volunteer program at Heston, where volunteers aid teachers in Kindergarten, first, and second grades during the literacy block of instruction. WePAC is working with additional partner schools and new volunteers to continue the program’s growth.
WePAC renovates and opens closed elementary school libraries, collects and donates books to the libraries, and provides trained volunteers to staff and run the libraries. Volunteers read to students, engage them in character and plot, help them select and check out books, and conduct literacy-related activities. In April 2012, WePAC celebrated National Library Week by bringing more than 40 authors, illustrators, elected officials, and celebrities into our libraries to share their books and stories with children!
As recently as 25 years ago, every public school in Philadelphia had a professional librarian working in the school library. Today, very few elementary schools have a functioning library at all. Now only about 20% of Philadelphia’s public schools have a librarian on staff, with almost all of those working in high schools.
While the relationship between prisons and school libraries may not be readily apparent, there is a direct link. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections estimates that one-half of all persons admitted to the state prison system read below the sixth grade level, and that 40% lack a high school diploma rated, three times the rate for high school graduates. Even with recent improvements, approximately 40% of Philadelphia public school students will drop out of school without graduating.
The economic and social impacts of failing to graduate from high school are well-known. Over the past few years, dozens of school library impact studies have demonstrated the link between school library access and student achievement. These impact studies show that student learning improves with increased library hours, group visits by classes, larger collections, and greater student usage.
A study of Pennsylvania school libraries found that standardized test scores improve 10 to 15 points when school library predictors are maximized. Among the library predictors is the presence of a librarian on the school’s staff. Unfortunately, today, very few elementary schools have a trained librarian staffing their library, if a library exists at all. This trend does not appear to be reversing itself in the near future.
School library access is an important way to enrich the school experience and to engage young students in the excitement and joy of reading. Making reading fun, making books and information easily accessible, and exposing children to great stories and authors helps young students engage and invest in learning. In the early elementary school years, children are learning to read; later, they are reading to learn. If early reading becomes a part of a child’s life, keeping up in school becomes less challenging. With schools no longer being able to support a librarian on staff, schools and principals are looking for creative ways to provide library access and activities to their students without impacting their budgets.