For the almost 8,000 students in the 14 square-mile radius of West Philadelphia, discovering the world of books isn’t easy. Many of the area’s schools lack library facilities, and, if libraries are on school grounds, they often have few books. Research tells us that early literacy can positively affect the course of a student’s educational career, and children without access to books are not only missing an essential component of a well-rounded education, but may also be restricted in imagination and creativity.
During a recent Askwith Forum at Harvard, Secretary Duncan said that he knows “what’s possible when we give young people long-term guidance, educational opportunities, and the commitment and connection of a caring adult. I know our students can be successful, regardless of their zip code and background.”
The West Philadelphia Alliance for Children (WePAC) is working to promote those education opportunities Duncan spoke of by revitalizing Philadelphia school libraries, facilitating academic mentoring, and sponsoring after-school enrichment activities. WePAC volunteers, who not only staff libraries but also run newspaper clubs for students in the 5th through 7th grades, donated more than 6,600 hours of time in schools during the 2010-2011 school year. These volunteers involve students in conducting interviews and writing both creative and informative articles. In this way, WePAC promotes childhood literacy and also a love of language through writing.
In recent months, staff at the U.S. Departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development teamed up to donate nearly 400 books to support WePAC’s contributions to the Philadelphia community.
“HUD seeks to use housing as a platform to improve the quality of life for communities by addressing the issues of education, health care, and transportation systems,” said HUD Regional Administrator Jane C.W. Vincent. “So, providing books to WePAC in partnership with ED is just one of many ways we can collaborate to improve the quality of education in communities throughout Philadelphia and the region.”
Since its inception in 2003, WePAC has opened 11 libraries. The organization’s 12th library, at Edward Heston School, will open in February. Heston, like other schools in which WePAC works, predominantly serves African-American students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. In this way, WePAC has helped to realize Secretary Duncan’s challenge to remove the barriers of zip code and background.
In less than 10 years, the organization has donated over 25,000 books, circulated more than 2,500 books per month, and reached over 3,000 students. David Florig, WePAC executive director, however, suggests that as many as 24 libraries in the area have the capacity to be restored or reopened. Administrators, teachers, and parents often approach WePAC volunteers and staff asking for the organization’s assistance in their schools.
“We view ourselves as filling a gap, but at the same time, we serve as a ‘wake-up call’ for many people,” said Mica Navarro Lopez, library programs coordinator. “People assume library access is still available.”
“Students check out books to read to their younger siblings. Even if their parents don’t read to them, [children] still have access to books,” said Navarro Lopez.
Students’ literary “altruism” extends beyond the school and home and into the communities in which WePAC serves. In 2011, a school whose library was transformed by WePAC held a book drive for another WePAC school.
“Students feel more empowered around reading,” said Florig. “We’re hoping to make school fun and reading interesting to kids.”
–Meredith Bajgier is a part-time employee in ED’s Philadelphia Regional Office through Drexel University’s work-study program.