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A Philly miracle: Amid closures, this elementary school is reopening its library

The Friends of Bache-Martin raised $90,000 to re-start the library that closed years ago amid budget cuts.

Meredith Tangeman, 10, a fourth grader and Koi Williams, 7, a second grader at Bache-Martin, search for books in a new library that was opened with the help of the Friends of Bache-Martin and book donations at Bache-Martin Elementary School in Fairmount, Philadelphia January 9, 2019. The school will invite Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney for a grand opening on Monday, January 14, 2019.
Meredith Tangeman, 10, a fourth grader and Koi Williams, 7, a second grader at Bache-Martin, search for books in a new library that was opened with the help of the Friends of Bache-Martin and book donations at Bache-Martin Elementary School in Fairmount, Philadelphia January 9, 2019. The school will invite Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney for a grand opening on Monday, January 14, 2019.Read moreMargo Reed / Staff Photographer

For as long as Anna Zhang has attended Bache-Martin Elementary School, the library was a locked room with old books she could not access.

That changed recently, when the public school in Fairmount reopened its library after a nonprofit organized to support the school rallied the community -- and raised $90,000 -- to make it happen.

It is a rarity in Philadelphia, where in a school district of 220 schools, just seven have certified librarians. (About a dozen more libraries are open through outside volunteer partnerships, or by other means.)

It wasn’t always that way. In 1991, the system employed 176 librarians, and more schools had libraries staffed by trained library assistants. But budget cuts decimated their ranks.

To Anna, an eighth grader who hunched over a book about artist Frida Kahlo during a spare moment in her school day recently, the Bache library, with its 10,000-plus books and part-time library staffer, feels like a miracle.

“We’re very excited to have a real library open,” she said.

“Our own library,” added Joel Roberts, a fifth grader who looked up from reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets nearby, “with books we love.”

The library will formally open Monday, with the mayor and superintendent expected to speak at a community celebration of Bache’s victory.

Though most well-resourced and suburban schools pride themselves on well-stocked libraries with librarians and the latest technology, overall, school librarians are becoming rarer, especially in urban areas where budgets are especially tight. Philadelphia’s situation may be the most dire nationally, a school-library expert has said.

But when members of the nonprofit Friends of Bache-Martin sat down with Bache teachers in 2017 and asked them what the group could do to best support them, reopening the library was at the very top of the list.

“Lack of a library, which should be a central hub of the school’s literacy projects and partnerships, sent a message to constituents that Bache-Martin could not deliver basic educational tools to support and promote academic success,” the Friends wrote on their blog.

(Research shows that students who attend schools with libraries and credentialed librarians perform better on standardized tests. The benefit is clearest for low-income students.)

The Friends of Bache-Martin estimated it would take three to five years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to reopen the library, which closed in the budget crisis of the early 2010s. Volunteers vowed to rally the community, tapping professional networks, appealing to alumni, and reaching out to schools that had pulled off similar feats.

It was daunting, said Tara Desmond, current Home and School Association president. She remembers talking with a contact at Radnor High School, where she was told their cutting-edge school library had 16 books per student.

“That felt so out of reach to us,” said Desmond.

But a funny thing happened when the Bache-Martin supporters began reaching out: Almost everyone they asked for help said yes, and some people they didn’t ask showed up, too. People rallied around the idea of doing something concrete: putting books in kids' hands. Volunteers from companies and churches donated their time. Books arrived by the carful from Moorestown, St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, and Abington Friends. Neighbors showed up in a big way. And so did checks from donors large and small, many of whom have no children in school.

It took less than two years for the project to come together.

The volunteers are clear-eyed about the fact that the resources at their disposal made their library reboot possible. Though 86 percent of Bache’s student population lives in poverty, the school sits in a relatively affluent, diverse neighborhood and has both an active Home and School Association and friends group. Most Philadelphia schools lack such advantages.

A few miles away, at Kensington High School, students are fund-raising to reopen their library, with some teacher help. But that school has no formal fund-raising group and its pace has been slower.

“This shouldn’t be something that takes thousands of dollars or thousands of volunteer hours,” said Jerilyn Dressler, president of the Friends of Bache-Martin. “Everyone should have the resources to do this.”

The Bache volunteers raised enough money to employ a “library coordinator,” a retired teacher, to staff the library two and a half days a week, ensuring that each of the 500 students in the K-8 school has library access at least once every other week. The group initially hoped to hire a full-time, certified librarian, but the cost -- $100,000 a year, including salary and benefits -- proved prohibitive.

The funds raised to date guarantee the library coordinator can be paid at least through the 2019-20 school year, and volunteers also help staff the room. The group’s money also bought seating, a cloud-based library inventory management system, annual magazine and online subscription services, shelving, book carts, and a rocking chair for story time.

The Friends of Bache were clear: They didn’t want a just-OK library. They wanted a beautiful library, with a robust collection that reflected the school’s smart, diverse student body, some of whom had access to books at home, but plenty of whom do not.

“There were fears from teachers and students that we were going to wipe the dust off the books from the 1950s, and that would be it,” Dressler said.

That didn’t happen. Any nonfiction book older than five years old was tossed; the vast majority of the books are new. Some were donated, many were purchased. The collection, volunteers proudly point out, meets the American Library Association’s standards.

(One unexpected problem: Captain Underpants, the wildly popular children’s series: “We completely underestimated the popularity of Captain Underpants,” said Janice Hunt, Friends of Bache-Martin treasurer and a library point person. So the library staff bought multiple copies of the series.)

Principal Mark Vitvitsky has, with parent and community help, attracted a number of programs and initiatives to Bache - after-school clubs, playground initiatives, school-time extras. Some worked fine, but no program’s impact has touched the library’s, Vitvitsky said.

“Kids are asking, imploring -- ‘I want to go to the library,’ ” Vitvitsky said. “They’re walking to the restroom reading books. They’re coming up from the playground to read books.”

District officials have long said that principals are free to pay for libraries from their school budgets, but most school leaders say that while they’d love them, the finances are impossible. Knowing what he knows now about libraries, Vitvitsky said, were he to go to another school, “a library might be the first thing I would prioritize.”

That makes sense to Meredith Tangeman, a Bache-Martin fourth grader.

“It’s just great,” Meredith said of the library. “You can get books without paying anything, and without having to go far away.”