Powelton Village: As School Libraries Close, a Non-Profit Fills the Void

[vimeo 80776295]

It’s no secret that the School District of Philadelphia has fallen on hard times. The district has to work with the budget it has set and because of this budget there have been many staff layoffs.

Among those laid off include principals, assistant principals, secretaries and teachers. One position that was hit hard were the school librarians. School librarians used to be critical to the success of schools and at one point every school in the entire district had a librarian.

Times have since changed, in a school district that educates over 150,000 students, there are only 15 librarians left. That number could change any given day. With this severe lack of librarians someone has to run the libraries so that they don’t just close for good.  A West Philadelphia organization is stepping up to keep libraries in their area staffed and open.

The West Philadelphia Alliance for Children, also known as WePAC, has been helping school libraries in West Philadelphia for almost a decade now.

WePac’s mission is to “promote childhood literacy by engaging volunteers in the Philadelphia public schools through re-opening and staffing libraries, academic mentoring and after-school enrichment. In our vision, every Philadelphia student will be empowered with the literacy skills vital to the success of the child and the prosperity of our community.”

Over the last 20 years, the School District has lost many of its certified librarians as money got tighter. In 1992, there were 176; by 2011, only 65. After this year’s budget cuts, the most severe the district has faced-only 15 librarians remain, according to district spokesman Fernando Gallard.

Add B Anderson School, located in West Philadelphia is where some of WePAC's volunteers work.
Add B Anderson School, located in West Philadelphia is where some of WePAC’s volunteers work.

WePAC currently runs and places volunteers in 11 school libraries in West and Southwest Philadelphia. Those schools are the Add B. Anderson School, Blankenburg Elementary School, Cassidy Elementary School, Cook-Wissahickon School, Henry C. Lea School, W.C. Longstreth Elementary School, James Rhoads Elementary School, Heston Elementary School, Samuel Powel Elementary School, Morton McMichael School and Samuel Gompers Elementary.

There are about 100 volunteers in the library program and 30 volunteers in their other programs which are the classroom program which is in the Heston School and the Blakenburg School. Also in the newspaper program which is at Gompers, McMichael and Cassidy.

David Florig, Executive Director of WePAC, is a strong advocate for having school libraries open and running.

“A lot of studies and a lot of research shows that having libraries in schools leads to better test scores and better performance,” said Florig.

In the School District of Philadelphia some schools are labeled as “Empowerment Schools.”  These schools are looked at as underachieving and are put on a list to possibly be converted to a charter school.  WePAC has helped at least one school get off that list.

“A principal came to me with a letter from the school district that said “congratulations, because your school has done so well, you are no longer an Empowerment School,”” said Florig.

The principal went on to give most of the credit for this news to WePAC which Florig viewed as “fantastic testimony.”

WePAC is nonprofit organization. They are funded by private donations and do not receive any government funding.  Volunteers are very important to making this organization work. Morgan Rogers Burns is the Volunteer Recruitment Coordinator for WePAC, she explains how she finds her volunteers.

“A lot of our volunteers come through online ads like volunteermatch.org and idealist.org,” said Rogers Burns.

These websites are used for matching possible volunteers and their skill sets with several nonprofits in and around Philadelphia.

Rogers Burns says that the next step in recruitment is to recruit parents of children in the school district to be volunteers. This could help in many ways and will hopefully lead to parents reading to their children more at home.

“Having volunteers is definitely an impact in the library and really just having supportive adults for another part of the children’s school experience is always positive,” said Rogers Burns.

Lynne Roberts is a WePAC volunteer stationed at the Add B. Anderson School in West Philadelphia. She reads to the children and allows them to take out books from the library, but she is also doing more than a general librarian, she is promoting the performing arts.

Volunteers work at schools once a week and engage students from kindergarten to second grade but will be moving up to third grade soon. They will also be working another day starting soon.The volunteers try to find books that are not only interesting to read to the children but have a vocabulary that they can expand theirs with. By asking the children if they know what the words mean.

“I’m working on a play with the second grade based on one of their favorite books,” said Roberts. “I have given them their scripts and we will be rehearsing today and every day.” Roberts hopes to present the play in the school library on Dec. 17.

“It’s been a wonderful experience working with the children in terms of hopefully increasing their interest in reading, telling them some stories they might not hear before or have not heard yet, said Roberts. “We look for books that are colorful for the early grades so that the pictures demonstrate something of a literature.”

WePAC has been fortunate to get donors from foundations, individual people and local members to contribute books. Some volunteers just bring in their own picture books that they’re very familiar with and they love to read to the students.

WePAC volunteer (left) Lynne Roberts and (right) Literacy Enrichment Coordinator, Sarah Joseph looked at library books.
WePAC volunteer (left) Lynne Roberts and (right) Literacy Enrichment Coordinator, Sarah Joseph looked at library books.

Another volunteer for the program is a former teacher in the School District of Philadelphia. James Charnock really believes in the power of reading to help steer the course for a brighter future for children.

When speaking about the children who frequent his school library Charnock says “the more we read to them, the more interested they become in reading which of course helps them in other areas of study.”

Instilling a love of reading early in the students is very important to Charnock.  He reads to the children frequently hoping that they will being to love reading as well and start taking out books on their own.

With the school district not sure where and how they are going to receive money for staffing, someone has to fill the void.  Someone has to give the children the access they need to reading materials as said by Lynne Roberts.

“Students would not have access to books unless somebody volunteered the library.”

WePAC has done just that.


[vimeo 80829749]

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