Eileen Gosser loves to surround her third graders with books, but it hasn't always been easy.
For years, the veteran teacher at Hackett Elementary in Kensington brought in her own children's old books or asked friends and neighbors for their discards. She'd dip into her pocket to buy some, too, but mostly her students had volumes that were outdated and not in top shape.
On Thursday, the Fund for the Philadelphia School District — the philanthropic arm of the school system — announced it has fully funded a multimillion-dollar effort to combat that trend and put classroom libraries in every elementary school room. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and his wife, Aileen Kennedy Roberts, kicked in $450,000 to close out the Right Books campaign.
Children who don't read on grade level by third grade are likely to never catch up, studies show. It's a particularly enormous problem for Philadelphia and urban districts nationwide.
Under Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., the school system has placed a strong emphasis on early literacy. The libraries — 300 to 500 books in a dedicated section of the classroom, easy for students to access, on multiple levels, with a combination of nonfiction and fiction texts — are a part of that.
In all, the campaign has put almost 700,000 books in 1,927 classrooms in 150 city schools.
Books are especially important in a district where few whole-school libraries remain and now has just six certified school librarians. School libraries have been disappearing in many urban and poor districts for years, but Philadelphia may be in the worst shape nationally on this front, according to experts.
Hackett classrooms got libraries last year, and the impact was immediate, said Todd Kimmel, the school's principal.
"It's been such a gift to have all these extra resources in the classrooms," Kimmel said. "The more they read, the more they grow."
Particularly crucial, Kimmel said, is the fact that each classroom has a wide range of books — from volumes that work for children who are not yet reading at grade level to books for kids whose skills are especially advanced.
In Gosser's classroom in Kensington, students made good use of the library this week. In the cheery reading nook, they chose from hundreds of volumes — books about minerals, books about culture, Miss Malarkey Doesn't Live in Room 10, and Earth Day From the Black Lagoon.
"The kids are just so much more interested in reading now," said Gosser, who's taught in the district for more than 30 years. "They love having choices."
Her students can also take books home; she expects them to read for 20 minutes, every night, and many don't have books at home.
The libraries have made a difference for students like Landon Sharpe, 8, who started second grade reading below grade level. At first, he disliked reading, lacking confidence. But once he had exposure to more books, he began to bloom and finished the school year just where he should be.
"He couldn't get enough of reading," said Gosser, who taught Landon and his classmates in second grade last year and who moved with them to third grade. "A lot of kids who hated to read now just can't wait to go to the library."
Landon agreed wholeheartedly.
"Some books are funny, and some are scary," Landon said. "I really like all the books."
The Right Books campaign dovetails with the school system's overall early literacy push. The school system has pledged $20 million over three years to the effort, and both the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Foundation are to give $10 million over the same span.
All city elementary schools have received Children's Literacy Initiative training and classroom libraries like Hackett's. The final group of schools was trained this summer.
The Robertses' $450,000 donation came after he heard Hite and Donna Frisby-Greenwood, CEO of the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, speak about the great need for books.
"It makes so much sense; we all learn to read at different speeds," Roberts said. "Aileen and I both thought that we could help them close out this campaign and hit their goal. We were just thrilled to say yes."
Other major donors included Vanguard Strong Start for Kids, which gave $500,000; the host committee for the 2016 Democratic National Convention, which donated $750,000; and Mayor Kenney's inaugural committee, which kicked in $500,000.
Roberts recalls being enthralled with a book he read at school about Roberto Clemente, the baseball player and humanitarian. Every child should have that experience, he said.