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A happy ending for school library

MICHAEL REAVEY, hired as Potter-Thomas Elementary School's librarian a year ago, found that the library was little more than "a storage room with old books purchased 40 years ago under the LBJ [Lyndon Baines Johnson] administration."

Francheska Bermudez (left) and Lamaje Moss, received free books to take home. (Clem Murray/Staff)
Francheska Bermudez (left) and Lamaje Moss, received free books to take home. (Clem Murray/Staff)Read more

MICHAEL REAVEY, hired as Potter-Thomas Elementary School's librarian a year ago, found that the library was little more than "a storage room with old books purchased 40 years ago under the LBJ [Lyndon Baines Johnson] administration."

The North Philadelphia school's library was also dark, he said, with dim lighting and filled with old projectors.

Similar conditions have existed in the libraries of many city schools for more than a decade, librarians say.

But Potter-Thomas, a kindergarten-through-8th-grade school at 6th Street and Indiana Avenue - in a neighborhood some people refer to as "the Badlands" - has hit the jackpot.

Potter-Thomas was one of 32 schools in the nation selected this year to win a $200,000 library renovation in the Target School Library Makeover program.

Today, the school's library has freshly painted blue and green walls, new bookshelves and furniture and bright lighting, as well as 2,000 new books and three new computers.

Also, each of the 400 pupils has received seven books to take home to share with siblings.

Not all Philadelphia schools have been so fortunate.

In the late 1990s, a time of huge budget deficits, the school district began eliminating librarian positions and failed to replace those who retired or found other jobs.

Reavey was among the librarians laid off due to budget cuts at the time, he said.

Today, of the district's 258 schools, only 120 have libraries, said Rachelle Nocito, the district's content specialist for libraries. And those 120 libraries have only 71 certified librarians with master's degrees in library science, she said.

The libraries without certified librarians are staffed either by teachers or by aides or assistants not required to have college degrees, Nocito said.

But that's a problem for many library advocates.

"Numerous studies have shown there is a strong correlation between student achievement in standardized reading tests and libraries with certified school librarians," said Barbara Goodman, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Librarian associations say that certified librarians help children select books that nurture a love for reading and teach research skills and how to navigate the Internet for reliable sources of information.

"The School District of Philadelphia probably has the worst record in the state in terms of certified school librarians to students," said Debra Kachel, of the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association.

Although about half of the city's 60 high schools have certified librarians, only six of 25 middle schools and only 25 of 170 elementary schools have certified librarians, a librarian said.

"If [students] don't have librarians when they're young, from the earliest ages when they fall in love with books and reading, by the time they get to high school they won't know how to use the library," said a librarian who requested anonymity.

Nocito said the district knows it needs to enhance school libraries.

She noted that Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's Imagine 2014 plan to improve the city's worst-performing schools includes strengthening libraries.

Imagine 2014, a five-year strategic plan, calls for investing $7.2 million into six struggling schools, called "Promise Academies."

When Ackerman announced the plan in 2008, she said it was disturbing that the city's "magnet schools," such as Masterman and Central high schools, have a wealth of resources, while many "neighborhood schools," often in high-poverty areas, have few of the basics such as libraries, librarians or school counselors.

Potter-Thomas is one of six Promise Academies that opened during this school year, with longer school days, new books, and field trips and after-school activities. Also, students wear prep-school uniforms of navy blazers and khaki pants or skirts.

Squeals of joy

At Potter-Thomas last Friday, there were squeals of joy and exclamations of "Oh, my God!" "Look at this!" and "Wow!" from children getting their first look at the revamped library.

One kindergarten boy turned a cartwheel near a corner decorated with stuffed animals and brightly colored bean-bag chairs. Other small children eagerly pulled books off the shelves.

Lauren Poulter, in her first year as a teacher, wiped a mist of tears from her eyes.

"It's amazing," Poulter said as she watched her 6th graders sit at tall coffee-shop styled tables, designed for older children, and pore through books.

"I walked in and started to cry because I'm so happy for them."

Poulter said that she had been going to yard sales to buy books for her pupils.

"We encourage our children to become readers, but now with a place like this, that looks so special, it makes them feel they are worth this," Poulter said.

The library makeovers are a joint project of Target and the Heart of America Foundation, which together have renovated 61 school libraries since 2007, said Colleen Noland, a vice president of the foundation.

Both Target and Heart of America had worked separately for years to help schools and school libraries before teaming up, Noland said.

The partnership has pledged to donate $500 million to boost education by 2015, Target spokesman Joshua Thomas said.

Reavey, the Potter-Thomas librarian, looked around on opening day and said, "It's just breathtaking."

He was pleased that the library is part of a statewide computerized inter-library loan system, and parents with home computers can keep track of the books that the children have checked out.

Potter-Thomas Principal Dywonne Davis-Harris said that she and her staff feel "very blessed" to have the new library.

And parent Carmen Rivas, who has four children at the school - in third, fifth, sixth and eighth grades - said things are better, now that it is a Promise Academy.

Nocito said the district was working to improve more school libraries.

The district's central library office helped Potter-Thomas and other schools apply for the library makeover.

In other efforts to improve libraries, Nocito said, the district had testing last week for several librarian jobs expected to open next year as veteran librarians retire.

Also, the district is in the process of selecting 10 candidates, from a pool of current teachers and other college-educated para-professionals, for scholarships funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, in Washington, D.C.

The $650,000 grant will help the 10 selected applicants become certified librarians in a master's program at Drexel University.

"I don't have a negative thought in my head about the future of libraries for the School District of Philadelphia," Nocito said.

"We're on the right track. We just have to be patient and get there by buying better books for our students and hooking them into reading, research and becoming learners for life."