Graduation is nine months away. Seniors at Kensington High School hope that will give them enough time to finish creating their parting gift to students:
Like, a real one – the kind that smells of new books, varnished wood, and fresh paint. With overstuffed chairs and sprawl-worthy carpets. With posters whose wise sayings inspire eagerness about life beyond the walls they hang on.
And with miles of fiction to get lost in while the radiators hiss and the clock ticks its way to the buzzer between classes.
It's so retro. And, the kids say, so needed.
Once upon a time, Kensington High had its own student library. For reasons no one can recall (and were doubtlessly financial), the space was long ago repurposed as a teachers' professional-development center.
But Kensington's seniors know what was lost in the conversion:
A quiet portal to worlds of their own discovery. A communal place loftier than the body-focused gym, belly-focused cafeteria, and sit-and-listen auditorium.
"Not everybody learns and grows by looking at a computer. They want to read a book," says senior Britney Rivera, 17. "In a library, you get the isolation, mind-set, and focus you need to turn off all the noise and think your own thoughts."
She's a student in teacher Eric Cruz's engineering class, where last year the kids were brainstorming project ideas to better the school. The class got pumped when Britney suggested creating a library, so Cruz had them survey the student body to see if it was actually wanted.
Surveying is part of engineering's philosophy of "empathic design," he told them. It's one thing to suspect a library is wanted; it's another to confirm it, so that nobody's time, effort, or dreams get wasted – or disrespected.
The survey responses were unequivocal: GIVE US A LIBRARY!
Cruz's students used the engineering lab's 3D printer to create a scale model of a modest space to be located in the only site available – an underused classroom on the third floor.
Then they spent the sweltering summer cleaning the room, moving desks, and building shelves.
Word spread, and donations trickled in:
Two worn but comfy armchairs, some purple beanbag loungers, a patterned rug to cozy things up.
School principal Jose Lebron installed air conditioners, partially funded by prize money Cruz's kids had won in a design competition.
And teacher Amanda Schear scored a $10,000 grant from Snapdragon Book Foundation to buy new books for the place.
The library still needs artwork, and a paint job, and work tables and chairs, and two printers, a few more comfy reading chairs and carpets, some adult volunteers and books, books, books (see below for how to donate).
Plus, there's no librarian – or even a library-certified teacher – to design programming, select books aligned with school curriculum, or suggest works of fiction to intrigue a young mind. There's not even a swiping system to log books in and out, although Cruz is looking at apps that might be workable.
But the momentum has been breathless, nonetheless, for kids in an educational system where exciting ideas are perpetually thwarted by scant resources.
"It's thrilling!" says senior Manny Rivera, 18, who's plopped on one of the beanbags. "Once you put your mind to something, then start to work on it, then see it come together, it's a thrill!"
The enthusiasm is spreading through the school, says Cruz, 32, a dynamo in his fourth year at Kensington.
"The kids are super anxious for it to open," says Cruz. "We're just not ready yet."
They're fighting a tide that has pulled most Philly public-school libraries beyond the breakers.
In the district's 2016-17 supports census, 99 schools listed libraries as a need or critical need.
Fewer than 10 libraries even have district librarians, although many have community partners that provide support in the form of a librarian retiree or volunteer.
The district has adapted by providing other ways to help kids develop media and information skills to be college- and career-ready, says district communications officer Megan Lello.
A digital literacy curriculum is used in computer labs across the district, for example, with some offering space for reading, research, or design. And all schools can subscribe to PowerLibrary, the state library portal that links schools and libraries across the commonwealth.
Nationwide, freestanding urban-school libraries haven't fared much better, says Danuta Nitecki, Drexel's dean of libraries and professor of information science.
They, too, have jettisoned their physical spaces and the librarians who once helped students not just find information but make sense of it.
So few Philadelphia public schools see the need for librarians that Drexel recently suspended a once-popular program that certified district teachers to run their school libraries.
Nitecki was moved when I told her about the Kensington kids' mission to open a library.
"It's amazing and inspiring that this is a student-led project," she says, marveling how the students intuitively understand that a library is actually three interwoven entities – a place, a collection, and a source of guidance in how to find, use, and exchange information.
I have a good feeling about this project, the students who want to drive it to completion and the young teacher who's making them believe they can.
Yes, there's much work to be done, and the library may be bare-bones when it opens. But that doesn't mean it always will be. A start is a start.
As American poet and historian Archibald MacLeish once said, "What is more important to a library than anything else — than everything else — is the fact that it exists."
To donate books, furniture, and other library materials to the project, contact teacher Eric Cruz at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or reach out to me at email@example.com or 215-854-2217 and let me know how you'd like to help.