The Philadelphia School District is one of the largest in the nation. It serves around 134,000 students, yet only seven of 200+ schools have libraries staffed with certified full-time librarians. But things are changing: For the last 15 years, the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children (WePAC) has been working to open school libraries and improve access to books for children in the District. This year, WePAC's hard work is being recognized with the 2019 Innovations in Reading Prize, awarded each year by the National Book Foundation.
“Access to great books and literacy resources is an imperative, but one that is too often not met. West Philadelphia Alliance for Children saw a need in the community and stepped up, throwing remarkable efforts behind a simple belief: That kids deserve access to school libraries,” said David Steinberger, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Book Foundation, in a press release about the prize. “The passion that staff and volunteers bring to their work is making a difference in the lives of thousands of young people, and we are honored to award WePAC with this year’s Innovations in Reading Prize.”
The Innovations in Reading Prize is awarded annually to an individual or organization that has "developed an innovative project that creates and sustains a lifelong love of reading." Two honorable mentions, Oakland International High School and Word Up Community Bookshop, were recognized for their outstanding efforts and awarded a $1,500 prize to support their mission and their work, but it was WePAC who was selected from a pool of 142 applicants as the winner of the $10,000 prize.
Founded in 2004, WePAC is the only nonprofit in Philadelphia dedicated to re-opening school libraries. Their literacy activities — which include operating volunteer-run libraries in public elementary schools, organizing readings with students, providing one-on-one literacy support, and assisting students in their selection of literature — are designed to teach children to love books and value reading as a life skill.
“I think that Philly is experiencing a bit of a literacy crisis,” Anisha Sinha, Executive Director of WePAC, tells Bustle. “In Philly, somewhere around two-thirds of our students are entering fourth grade not reading at grade level. To me, that is a major problem. That means that over half of our students are not ready to finish high school on time, go to college, give back to the community that they come from. I think people don’t realize that is the reality of what is happening. If kids aren’t reading at grade level, there is a number of reasons why that is the case, but access to books is a big part of that.”
Currently, WePAC serves more than 5,000 students across 16 elementary school libraries. By the end of the 2020-2021 school year, WePAC organizers hope to be in 20 schools.
“School libraries are not particularly innovative. They’ve been around a really long time. But I think what makes our model innovative is that Philly schools haven’t had libraries in years. Some of them have gone a decade without a school library, and so we have been able to engage volunteers and motivate them to revive those spaces, and no one else is doing that,” says Sinha. “It’s almost innovative in its simplicity.”
Every year, WePAC mobilizes nearly 200 volunteers to help reopen and staff school libraries in the Philadelphia area. Their goal is to provide regular, sustainable library access for students by providing each school with committed volunteers and stocking library books the children will enjoy, understand, and connect with.
“In order to get kids interested in reading and get them excited about it, we are really trying to target our efforts on what we call window, mirror, and door books,” Sinha says. “A book can be a door you can step through into a world you are unfamiliar with. It can be a window, so you can learn about something from a distance, safely from the comfort of your home. Or it can be a mirror, and it can reflect you in some way that is meaningful. Those are the ways that you feel most engaged by a text. In children’s books, there is definitely an imbalance. Most of the kids we serve are minorities, largely African Americans. The number of children’s authors that are published and of color and the number of books that prominently feature children of color are totally skewed.”
According to data from the University of Wisconsin — Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center, 93 percent of children’s books in 2012 were about white or non-human characters. Although the numbers have shifted slightly since then, there is still a serious lack of diversity in children’s books, both in the authors who get published and the characters that are featured.
“There is a huge imbalance in representation, but we know that if you see yourself in the book or you can imagine yourself in the book, or you can relate to it, you are far more likely to want to read it. As we are expanding and growing, we are also really drilling down into that,” Sinha says.
In its efforts to rebuild Philadelphia’s school libraries, WePAC is creating a hub where students can learn to love and appreciate reading. In addition to reopening libraries, WePAC hosts special events that help connect kids with authors, illustrators, and local professionals who can speak to the power of reading and explain the importance of literacy skills in school, in work, and beyond.
“WePAC’s ultimate purpose, our goal, is to get kids excited about reading and interested in reading, and give them the opportunity to cultivate that interest, so that later in life they see the utility of reading in their life,” says Sinha. “We want them to know it’s not a chore, it’s not something that’s scary, it’s not something that’s frustrating. It’s something you can enjoy and benefit from your whole life.”