Mt. Airy: Houston Elementary Library Renovations Spark Community Outreach

Students work together on their stories with teacher assisting when needed.

Students work together on their stories with teacher assisting when needed.
Students work together on their stories with teacher assisting when needed.

Henry H. Houston Elementary in Mount Airy weathered the Philadelphia School District budget crisis with help from the surrounding community. Despite the Philadelphia School District faces a $304 million budget gap this fiscal year, Houston Elementary has not only added several after school programs but also will open its newly renovated library full of donated books. These new additions cost the school $0.00.

Meredith Haskins, Home and School Association President, believes that involving the parents and community is paramount to creating a successful learning environment.

“Everything we [home and school] do is voluntary. The school district doesn’t have any money so the parents of Houston have been helping out tremendously,” said Haskins.

As a mother of two students in the school, Haskins felt obligated to provide for her children. When Haskins started the renovations last year, the library was in serious need of fixing up. Most of the books were not only outdated but also torn apart by pests.

“I found books in there from 1940’s and 1950’s, it had been awhile since anyone has been in that library,” Said Haskins.

The renovations have been conducted exclusively by students’ parents, neighbors as well as donations from neighboring schools. Haskins believes without proficient literacy students can’t advance.

“You have to read in order to function in life. If you cannot read how are you going to function?” Said Haskins.

A poster above Deberardinis' desk inspires onlookers to keep reading.
A poster above Deberardinis’ desk inspires onlookers to keep reading.

According to results from a Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, data collected in 2012 indicates Houston at a 56.4 percent proficiency rating and a 53.1 percent in reading and math respectively. These scores fall into the middle ground where the three highest scores were 96.9 percent, 92.5 percent and 78.9 percent. The three lowest were 5.8 percent, 4.0 percent and 2.2 percent within the district.

While these numbers do not reflect the current programs and achievements of Houston, they do reflect the changes from the previous year of 2011 where reading and math scored 27.6 and 29.8 respectively. This progress shows the attitude in Houston Elementary that strives to give students the tools they need to achieve.

Other means the students have to enhance their academic experience are Houston’s after school programs such as Reading Rocks-a program brought to Houston by Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. Houston’s library has received donated books from Springside Chestnut Hill Academy as well.

Students story ideas are displayed on the board in reading rocks as they write them down.
Students story ideas are displayed on the board in reading rocks as they write them down.

The Reading rocks program is a literacy fluency program where students learn in a highly personalized setting with a high student to teacher ratio. The students work on skills such as blending, literary fluency and comprehension skills. Rene DeBerardinis, Reading Rocks program creator and head librarian at SCHA, recalled the program came to be once Chestnut Hill Academy was looking for a public to private school partnership.

“It was the passion around literacy and the interest in building a bridge to community to share resources,” said DeBerardinis.

In Reading Rocks a lot of what the kids do is listening, either from class readings where a teacher reads to them or in-group reading sessions. Words and creativity fill the classroom as students read stories and then use what they have read to create their own stories.

“The more you write the better you read and the more you read the better your write,” said DeBerardinis.

This sums up the reading rocks programs where students’ literacy skills are improved by writing constantly and reading constantly.

“By third grade students are moving from learning to read to reading to learn,” said DeBerardinis.

Rene DeBerardinis talks about her strategy and goals for Reading Rocks.
Rene DeBerardinis talks about her strategy and goals for Reading Rocks.

If students are to get behind in their reading proficiency at this point in their academic career then they will be less likely to meet grade level proficiency year after year. DeBarerdinis and the other teachers involved from SCHA give their time to this program without any monetary deficit to the school itself. Mt. Airy residents and institutions are not the only ones Houston.

The Educational Improvement Tax Credit is a means businesses can use to apply the state taxes to a school of their choosing. This tax credit allows a business owner or those in charge to place their taxes where they want it rather than Harrisburg dispersing the taxes. Other options MT. Airy USA has given to the public, other than a business tax credit, are donations and allocation of volunteers.

The coalition includes A. B. Day, Emlen, C. W. Henry, Houston, J.S. Jenks, and Lingelbach all area elementary schools. According to Mt. Airy USA’s website there are two ways donations are divvied out. Donations can support the cost for a background check for volunteers so the cost does not deter community members from helping out. Abby Thaker, Director of Development and Education Partnerships, is currently working to create more defined long-term goals and priorities.

“We want to think more strategically,” said Thaker.

Mt. Airy USA, West and East Mt. Airy Neighbors are working collaboratively to create a series of surveys for school administration, teachers, parents and community members.

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