On a cold Tuesday night earlier this month, volunteers gathered in a West Philadelphia elementary school library at 56th & Spruce that's been closed for a few years, working to clean up the room, weeding outdated old books.
It's the beginning of work that will reopen a library in the Alexander Hamilton Elementary School. One library at a time, the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children brings its volunteers into a school and reopens closed libraries. Using volunteers, they're able to open the library one or two days a week. The Hamilton library should be open and staffed by late January, according to Sarah Joseph, library program manager at WePAC.
WePAC works with different community and religious partners to collect donations and resources that transform the library from a fallow field into a place of learning again. Schools must meet certain requirements, and the program focuses on early literacy, with a goal of helping kids read on a 4th grade level. As such, the focus in the library is books for grades K-3, though some go up to sixth grade.
“It's very important to note that we view our programs as short-term solutions in a school district that has lost all funding for certified librarians,” Joseph said. “While we cannot provide the same full services as certified school librarians, we are certainly able to provide greater access to books for public elementary school students, and thereby increase literacy rates as well as general excitement about reading.”
Since 2009, WePac, which works only with public schools, largely in southwest Philly so far has helped reopen 17 school libraries, 12 of which are currently open. That's a good thing and a scary one too. Philly's school budget issues, and its high rate of illiteracy are major problems in our city. Over the half the adult population is considered low literate—meaning they struggle to fill out a basic job application, according to the Center for Literacy. While this school is outside the area we usually cover, it's inspirational to see an organization like WePAC, which runs on volunteers aside from its core staff, and has grown up to fill the very real need of open libraries in schools.
The biggest challenges it faces are two-fold.
“Firstly,” Joseph said, “we need more funding in order to grow our programs' reach to more community schools. Secondly, we need more volunteers.”
With 86% of all office construction in the region occurring in University City, according to the State of University City 2014/2015 report, and a 96% office occupancy rate, the highest of all 27 regional real estate markets, kids in West Philly need books in their school libraries to compete for jobs in their hometown. WePAC is helping our children bridge that gap.
All photos by Mica Navarro Lopez, except "Longstreth before" by David Florig and "Huey after," taken by Morgan Rogers Burns.