Upon Opening of 13th Library, WePAC Looks to Refine Model - Generocity Philly

Jan. 27, 2015 11:32 am

Upon Opening of 13th Library, WePAC Looks to Refine Model

With new leadership, the West Philadelphia-based nonprofit is discerning a path forward.

Andrew Hamilton Elementary is an old, angular building that hugs the corner at 57th and Spruce Streets. The public school, whose student body is approximately 600, has lacked a library for the last four years. That will change next week.

Before the library at Hamilton becomes the 13th one reopened and operated by the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children (WePAC) next Tuesday, February 3, the majority of its books had to be purged. 

Tattered and outdated encyclopedias from the 1960s were still in circulation; 85-year-old nonfiction books sat on the shelves. Overall, 70 percent of the collection needed to be replaced. 

“We don’t want students to be learning incorrect or outdated information,” said Sarah Joseph, the library program manager at WePAC.

Since November, Joseph and a team of volunteers have logged more than 350 hours cataloging titles, printing barcodes, and completing “all the necessary steps to get the library fully operational,” she said.

WePAC estimates that the annual investment to operate a library is $20,000, a cost that the organization does not pass on to the school.

Once it is open, WePAC volunteers — there are 125 — run a library program for each class in the school, focusing heavily on kindergarten through fourth grade. Some schools have instruction once a week; others are fortunate enough to receive it twice.

For committed volunteers, formidable challenges 

Ruth Brader has been the lead volunteer at the Longstreth William School, in Southwest Philadelphia, since she retired from her career as a corporate lawyer in 2010. The school is one of 12 to benefit from WePAC’s library opening initiative since 2009.

“A lot of these students do not have books at home, so for them, the mere ability to select a book is incredible,” Brader said. “Here they get to choose, and that makes all the difference.”

Ninety-four percent of the students at Longstreth are economically disadvantaged, and overall academic performance is poor, according to recent data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

The school’s library program used to receive solid support from parents and grandparents, but that has dwindled. Parents are too busy, Brader surmised, and the Home and School Association — usually an important resource for parent volunteers — is floundering.

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“We need to reengage with [parents] to have the community involved,” Brader said, “but I’m running a library. I’m not out there in the community doing outreach.”

Despite the challenges at Longstreth, other WePAC schools have benefited from strong parent and community involvement, factors that will ultimately determine the success and longevity of the library program.

A change in direction

WePAC began as a grassroots urban ministry project led by Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, along with other civic groups, and first placed volunteers in a school library in 2003.

In the past, before choosing where to reopen a library, WePAC used specific criteria to determine which schools would most benefit from the organization’s presence.

That recipe for investment, said David Brown, the executive director of WePAC, looked at school leadership; the state of the physical space; the quality of the existing book collection; WePAC’s ability to deploy volunteers in the school; and the existence or potential for quality community partnerships.

Roughly 20 schools are currently on its waiting list, but despite the demand, Brown acknowledged that students deserve more than what WePAC alone can offer.

“We’re a band-aid,” he said. “We’re using volunteers to run these one- to two- day a week programs, and we know that our kids need a whole lot more.”

A former Inquirer columnist and West Philadelphia native, Brown took the helm of the organization in June 2014.

Since then, he has begun to reevaluate its direction.

“There was a model at one time to open four libraries a year,” he said, referring to WePAC’s early focus.

Now, because WePAC is focused on empowering libraries, rather than building them, the library at Hamilton Elementary may be the last that it opens for some time.

“We really want to dive in and determine what makes our model successful and what parts have replication potential,” Brown explained.

Along with building capacity, WePAC is discerning which community partnerships are crucial for long-term success, with a goal of “graduating our libraries out of WePAC ownership to community ownership,” he said.

“We may not be opening more libraries like we’re doing with Hamilton this year, but we’re looking for more support that would enable us to equip and empower others to open and operate more in-school libraries.”

Images via WePAC

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