Across the city, many classrooms lack what Alison Walters has cobbled together from 10-cent yard sales, book-club deals, and the proceeds of side jobs she works "to support my teaching habit": a colorful, voluminous classroom library.
City and school officials want to change that.
On Tuesday, Mayor-elect Jim Kenney, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., and 30 other leaders gathered at Clara Barton School to launch a $3.5 million fund-raising campaign aimed at placing libraries in every Philadelphia School District elementary classroom.
The need is great, especially in a system where few whole-school libraries remain, and fewer than a dozen librarians are on staff citywide.
Walters wonders how she'd do her job without the classroom library that delights the first graders in Room 209 at Barton, in Feltonville.
"I want my kids to be in a beautiful place, with all kinds of resources," said Walters, who has taught in Philadelphia for 21 years. "The classroom library helps them move forward faster."
The citywide effort is being driven by the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, the nonprofit philanthropic arm of the school system. To celebrate, the 30 guest readers fanned out across classrooms to read to students.
"Getting the right books in the right hands at the right time is critically important," said Hite, who has made early-literacy work a hallmark of his administration. "The more confident children feel reading, the more they will read."
The "Right Books" campaign is part of a larger effort, supported by the William Penn and Lenfest Foundations, to get all district children reading on grade level by fourth grade. William Penn and Lenfest donated $10.5 million; the Right Books drive aims to draw in money from corporations and private donors over the next three years.
It raised $10,000 Tuesday - the cost of two classroom libraries - via sponsorships of the 30 Barton readers, and a gift from Sheldon Bonovitz, who chairs the fund's board of directors.
Big givers, of course, are welcome, but so are the everyday people who stop Donna Frisby-Greenwood, CEO of the Fund for the School District, on the street to ask what they can do to help their schools.
"Every dollar counts," said Frisby-Greenwood. "People might not think their $50 will do anything, but we'll pool their dollars and really make a difference."
In Walters' classroom, books are everywhere, on levels appropriate for the most basic of readers to children who are well ahead of their peers.
Kenney, who also stressed the importance of early-literacy efforts, proved himself a fine match for Walters' wriggly, spirited class of 6- and 7-year-olds.
The students sat on a rug in front of the mayor-elect and peppered him with questions before he could even crack open his chosen book.
"What did you do before you were mayor?" one boy asked.
Kenney reeled off jobs he's held, from newspaper delivery boy to city councilman. Nope, he's never been a train conductor, he said, appearing to disappoint one small questioner.
Then he read Spaghetti Park by DyAnne DiSalvo, where a young boy and his grandfather band together with their neighbors to clean up a spot where "goofballs," as Kenney described them, have historically caused trouble, but ultimately decide to be good guys and help.
The mayor-to-be couldn't help but impart a lesson to his rapt audience.
"You don't give up on people," Kenney said. "Sometimes, they can surprise you and do really good things."