Come to Brunch

Do you like jazz? Do you like to eat? Do you want to support a simply incredible, grassroots effort led by local parents to help some of the most struggling students in Pittsburgh?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, clear your lunchtime calendar for Saturday May 10th. Seriously. Go to your calendar and write in “11AM, Jazz Brunch, Manchester Elementary School, 1612 Manhattan Street, 15233.” Here’s why:

This fundraiser is being held by a new initiative called the Pittsburgh Struggling Student Association, or PSSA (a delightfully ironic acronym, given that those letters usually stand for the state’s system of standardized high-stakes tests), organized by parents in the Manchester neighborhood on the Northside (who may or may not have intended for their acronym to be delightfully ironic).

The group is currently running an all-volunteer program they developed themselves called “The Math Doctors,” to help students at Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 learn math skills. Volunteers show up in the classroom wearing surgical masks and help students save their “patients” (math problems). The students apparently love it. And now those parents are creating a summer camp called Math, Mud, and More that will combine math lessons with a new edible garden (the “mud”) and plain old fun.

These efforts are the brainchild of Mr. Wallace Sapp and his wife, Ms. Lisa Freeman. Some of you may remember them from the “Manchester Miracle” eighteen months ago, when our post about the empty library shelves at that school went viral. Within days we had thousands and thousands of people all over the world, and right down the street, sending books to fill the shelves. Famous authors were tweeting our messages. News reports of the campaign caught the attention of local activists who solicited donations and labor to create an entirely new and gorgeous library space for the students. And Mr. Wallace was there every day opening all those boxes of donated books. In fact, he is in the school nearly every day of the year as a volunteer.

Mr. Wallace Sapp (right) helping to unload donated books during the Manchester Miracle.

Mr. Wallace Sapp (right) helping to unload donated books during the Manchester Miracle.

A couple weeks ago Mr. Wallace invited me to his home to learn more about his idea for the Math, Mud, and More summer camp. While our kids played games together, I talked to Ms. Lisa, who is also a case manager for the Salvation Army, about her efforts to get local parents engaged in their children’s education. Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 is a very special place, serving a tremendous number of families living in poverty: 89% of the students receive free and reduced price lunch and many parents face multiple barriers and challenges to engaging more fully with the school. Eighty-nine percent of the students are African American and the school provides regional classrooms for autistic support, multi-disability support, emotional and therapeutic support, and life skills support.

When Wallace and Lisa set out to do something, they get it done. (They are also working with a group to get a free children’s health clinic at the school.) Their enthusiasm is contagious. Honestly, you cannot say no to these two beautiful people. I have learned a lot from them, and we should all be paying attention to their wisdom.

Their camp will serve 30 kids this summer, with the involvement of many current and retired teachers. There will be reading coaches. Slippery Rock University and the University of Pittsburgh are both partnering with them, to prepare college students to be excellent substitute teachers. The camp will be held at the school, where the kids will be turning part of the school grounds into a garden. They will receive a free lunch every day. The entire program falls under the fiscal sponsorship of the Manchester Citizens Corporation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit community development organization.

Manchester principal, Ms. Theresa Cherry, practically gushes about the program, saying that it “embodies some of the best principles of education.” In a letter of support for the Pittsburgh Struggling Students Association, she writes, “The transformative power of whole community involvement in children’s lives lies in its ability to help students understand we are all partners in their education.” After explaining how she feels this summer camp will benefit the students she continues, “This may seem a little over the top for a typical support letter, but it is at the heart of what I believe that education is all about; helping individuals achieve their potential.” Indeed.

Transformative power. Whole community involvement. Kids achieving their potential. Parents acting at the grassroots level, responding effectively to local educational needs. Let’s help make Math, Mud, and More as big a success as the Manchester Miracle in the school library. It starts with us being willing to show up for an hour to have lunch together on Saturday, May 10th.

That’s exactly one week before the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court desegregation ruling. With equity issues staring us in the face here in Pittsburgh, we have certainly not achieved the full promise or potential of the Brown decision. But this is one thing we can do together: please come to lunch. And bring a friend or two.

PghStrugglingStudentAssocBrunch

Libraries Tell Our Story

Libraries are back in the news. Or to be more precise: old news about school libraries is getting some new attention. And it’s evidence of the power of our grassroots movement as we literally change the conversation here in Southwest Pennsylvania, keeping the focus on equity in learning resources for our students.

Back in October, we reported on a new study that found that students in our state with access to a full-time, certified school librarian have far better educational outcomes. Researchers from the Colorado based RSL Research Group looked at Pennsylvania’s standardized test scores (the PSSA) in reading and writing and tracked student achievement against five school library factors: staffing, collections, digital resources and technology infrastructure, library access, and funding. [Education Law Center Library Report, 10-23-12] The report concluded that by far the most important factor was having a full-time library professional and that the effects were particularly large for groups that tend to experience achievement gaps, including African American students, low income students, and those with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). [See “Libraries (and Librarians) Matter” for details.]

Just yesterday the Post-Gazette picked up this story and it has already been shared more than 950 times on Facebook and Twitter. [Post-Gazette, 11-26-12] The fact that the paper’s education reporter (and the editors) chose to run this article now, more than a month after the study came out, suggests that they see continued public interest in the topic – interest that we have helped to cultivate by keeping the spotlight on equity issues in school libraries. And if the Post-Gazette thought people would take notice, they were right: the number of people sharing the story on social media is many, many times larger than a typical education piece and it has generated a vigorous on-line discussion in the comments section.

The article also comes on the heels of another library story in last week’s paper, featuring the ongoing ripples of our Manchester Miracle. After seeing our call to action for that school library, Keith Harrison, an English teacher at Baldwin High School, worked with his students to organize a book drive. They wound up collecting 1,300 volumes and also wanted to volunteer their time. Since the Pittsburgh Manchester K-8 library was already well under way to its glorious reconstruction, our fearless public school librarian Sheila May-Stein suggested they turn their attention to another ailing school library at Pittsburgh Carmalt in the Brookline neighborhood. Two weeks ago, Mr. Harrison and 40 Baldwin students spent an entire day at Carmalt helping to clean the library, catalog all the new books, and stock the shelves. [Post-Gazette, 11-21-12]

Baldwin High School students Daria Och, Sarah Berardine, Jackie Nguyen, Ali Marx and Matt Doyle sort through books they helped collect for the library of Pittsburgh Carmalt. Photo source: Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette.

These stories not only highlight the continued impact of our grassroots movement, but also point to the underlying equity issues. As we’ve said many times, it’s great to have all those new books and a space open for classroom teachers to take their students when time allows, but without a full-time librarian in each of our schools, we are still short-changing our kids. Professional librarians do far more than check out books. They get to know hundreds of students in their schools; they work closely with classroom teachers to design lesson plans; they teach critical digital information searching skills; they run reading clubs, and much more. As this most recent study clearly found, librarians are even more significant for our most struggling students, yet these are often the very kids forced to go without books, staff, or space.

As we’ve seen with these latest draconian state budget cuts, libraries and librarians are some of the first learning resources that get the axe when districts are forced to make tough choices. And Pittsburgh is hardly alone: last year 56% of all public schools in Pennsylvania did not have a full-time librarian. [Post-Gazette, 11-26-12] Yet people care about their libraries and believe that children should have access to their resources. In fact, it was the threat of losing school librarians that catalyzed many in this grassroots movement into action last fall. Perhaps that should not come as a surprise here in the birthplace of Andrew Carnegie’s free public libraries, where local residents actually voted to raise their own taxes last fall to support the system.

In any case, libraries offer a tangible and crystal clear example of the challenges facing our public schools. People understand empty bookshelves and can wrap their heads around the fight to fill them more quickly than digesting the policy weeds of state politics. But libraries also offer the perfect entrée into understanding the consequences of state budget cuts and decisions made by legislators far away in Harrisburg. That’s another reason why keeping the library story in the public dialogue has been so important for our movement.

And our Manchester Miracle is a story that just keeps on giving – like the people who keep on giving. The latest news is from the small town of Parkersburg, Iowa, that was flattened by an F-5 tornado back in 2008. With a population of only 1,800 people, the town rebuilt and decided to re-imagine their school’s purpose, giving back to the world that helped them to recover after the disaster. Sheila May-Stein reports that Parkersburg collected and mailed at considerable expense eight giant boxes of books for Manchester: “They included handmade book marks, photos of the whole student population dressed in rainbow colors, a bound book of the children’s letters of encouragement to Manchester’s children, and a letter describing what their philosophy has become, and how they wanted to help Manchester’s kids.”

Parkersburg, Iowa in 2008 after the F-5 tornado leveled the town. Photo source: AlteredStars / WunderPhoto.

And speaking of donations to Manchester: Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley, PA gave three enormous boxes of brand-new, high-quality, hardcover children’s books. Sheila points out that they received “absolutely nothing from us” in return, yet Amazon.com has made over $13,000 from our Wish-List book drive and so far not responded to our requests for a single donation. (The fact that all our volunteers have been paying full retail prices benefiting a large corporation also points to problems arising from the District’s decision to eliminate a city-wide library coordinator: these books would have cost far less under contracts we previously had with school book distributors.) Perhaps if you are doing some holiday shopping this year in the Sewickley area, you might consider dropping into the Penguin Bookshop with your business – and tell them thanks for supporting public education.

Meanwhile, give yourself a big thank you, too, for keeping school libraries in the public eye where they can tell our story. This is how we know the grassroots is working.

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Help grow our grassroots movement for public education: join other volunteer parents, students, educators, and concerned community members by subscribing to Yinzercation. Enter your email address and hit the “Sign me up” button to get these pieces delivered directly to your inbox and encourage your networks to do the same. Really. Can you get five of your friends to subscribe? Working together we can win this fight for our schools.

Testing and More Testing

It’s National Education Week and it’s time to talk about testing. High-stakes-testing that is. These are not the old end-of-unit quizzes you and I took in school. We’re talking about an entirely new system of labeling and punishing schools that is having dire consequences for students. Hand in glove with other corporate-style “reform” measures and draconian state budget cuts such as we’ve seen here in Pennsylvania, high-stakes-testing lies at the heart of the modern attack on public education.

So where did this come from? The high-stakes-testing and accountability movement solidified under federal law in 2001 when President George Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). This legislation radically transformed public education policy by dramatically increasing the role of the federal government and mandating standardized testing to measure student achievement. It also created a culture of failure and blame, accusing teachers of poor performance when their students did not do well on the tests, and then labeling schools as failures when their students struggled. This effectively reinforced an existing national narrative of “failing public schools.” And while there is a mountain of evidence to the contrary, that narrative conveniently fits with what many people already believe about cities, urban schools, and minority students, lending the narrative even more power.

NCLB effectively created the system of “teaching to the test” and “canned curricula” giving teachers less and less control over their classrooms, while students spend more and more time preparing for tests and practicing test-taking skills. Students are certainly learning how to take standardized tests, but not actual content: when they are tested on the same material in a different format, they cannot demonstrate any real subject mastery. Even those students in districts that have shown impressive gains over the past few years under NCLB cannot transfer those skills, failing to perform on different tests of similar content. [Daniel Koretz, Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us, 2008].

The massive increase in school time spent on test preparation inevitably detracts from time on other learning tasks. Yinzercator Pamela Harbin points out that this year Pittsburgh Public School sixth graders – including my own son – will take 23 of these tests, nine more than last year. Teachers are increasingly being evaluated on their students’ test scores and little else, even though these tests were never designed for this purpose. And schools that fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under the federal law are threatened with punitive sanctions, including loss of funding, and in the worst-case scenario, complete closure.

High-stakes-testing has therefore set the stage for a plague of cheating scandals as desperate students, teachers, school districts, and even states try to game the system. (See how this has made Pennsylvania’s own Secretary of Education “A Liar and a Cheat.”) NCLB set the unrealistic target of 100% proficiency for all U.S. students in reading and math by 2014, and as that deadline has approached and the proficiency bar has moved ever higher, more schools have “failed” and more teachers have been blamed. In a nationwide study of high-stakes-testing, Arizona State University researchers concluded, “The scores we get from high-stakes tests cannot be trusted—they are corrupted and distorted. Moreover, such tests cannot adequately measure the important things we really want to measure. Even worse … [h]igh- stakes testing programs corrupt and distort the people in the educational system.” [“The Inevitable Corruption of Indicators and Educators Through High Stakes Testing, 2005”]

What’s more, high-stakes-testing has drastically narrowed school curricula with its laser focus on reading and math. These are essential skills, but our children have lost music, art, foreign languages, history, science, and much more in the quest for higher standardized test scores in these two areas. And when Governor Corbett cut nearly $1BILLION from our schools, many districts were forced to eliminate programs, keeping only those classes that would be measured on standardized tests. When we lament as a community empty library shelves and rally behind our very own Manchester Miracle, we must stop to consider how high-stakes-testing has created a climate in which libraries are expendable. [If you haven’t already, be sure to read why cutting libraries is so short-sighted in “Libraries (and Librarians) Matter.”]

And now we have new tests. Under new federal Common Core Standards, states are phasing in new standardized tests – here in Pennsylvania they will be called Keystone Exams – which will be significantly more difficult. Last year, Kentucky became the first state to use the new Common Core in its testing and “the percentage of students scoring proficient dropped by a third or more in elementary and middle school compared with the old test.” [Post-Gazette, 11-8-12] In an on-line comment to that story, the National Association of Secondary School Principals applauded the Pittsburgh Public School district for trying to “prepare their stakeholders” for what will in all likelihood be a “precipitous drop” in test scores. “Otherwise,” they noted, “a different narrative will be created for them, and the scores will just become one more bludgeon for public-school detractors.”

This is exactly the point. These high-stakes-tests are being used to hurt schools, not help them. Schools with low-scoring students do not get extra resources or offers of help. They get labeled as failures and threatened with sanctions. And despite all the additional tests, our children are not learning more – they are learning less. They are losing their libraries, arts education, tutoring, and so much more.

Enough is enough. Since it’s National Education Week, let’s spend some time this week educating ourselves about the real consequences of high-stakes-testing. Stay tuned and we’ll talk some more about a growing national movement resisting this cancerous plague in our public schools.

Making Waves

You know those little ripples in the proverbial pond? The ones we make when we throw in a stone, and the results of our actions spread out and out and out. It’s a great metaphor for our grassroots movement – and right now, you all in Yinzer Nation are making waves.

First, our Manchester Miracle continues to gather steam and is now spreading across a more literal pond. David Gaughran, an Irish author with over 26,000 followers on his blog, wrote about our work to fill those empty library shelves and the underlying problem of chronic funding inequities. [DavidGaughran, 10-18-12] He and many of his colleagues are now starting a similar campaign for school libraries in the U.K.

This week the eminent education historian Diane Ravitch, picked up on our post about new research that demonstrates the critical link between student learning and full-time, professional librarians in our schools. [See “Libraries (and Librarians) Matter”]. Ravitch wrote about our Manchester Miracle, noting:

“The community came together, renovated the library, and stocked its shelves with books.
And then there is the bad news. In Pittsburgh, only 14 of 51 schools have a full-time librarian. Most librarians spend only one day a week at each school.
This is the part I don’t understand.
When I went to public school in Houston many years ago, every school I attended had a library and a librarian. Some had more than one.
Our society is now immeasurably richer than it was then.
Why can’t every school have a library and a librarian?
Why don’t hedge fund managers support libraries?
Andrew Carnegie did, and it made him a hero for all time, enabling people to forget about labor practices at his steel mills. So today, because of his benefactions, he is remembered for his gift of libraries and literacy, not the brutal suppression of the Homestead Strike in 1892.
If the hedge fund managers and equity investors supported school libraries, we would think of them kindly and the memory of 2008 would fade.
Hello, Democrats for Education Reform! How about Democrats for School Libraries?” [DianeRavitch.net, 10-31-12]

And the waves you made go on. Today our beloved Yinzercator librarian, Sheila May-Stein, reports that she is finalizing plans with a Baldwin High School teacher who is bringing 1,220 books he and his students collected for Manchester to Pittsburgh Carmalt, instead. This is the latest library Sheila has been assigned to rehabilitate by the Pittsburgh Public Schools and is in just about as sorry a shape as Manchester was a few weeks ago. This wonderful Baldwin teacher is also getting a school bus to bring thirty of his students to Carmalt to help clean, organize, catalog, and decorate the library. To imagine what Carmalt could look like in a few weeks with a little TLC from the community, here are photos from Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 taken at last week’s dedication:

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Here are a few more waves you are making, as our grassroots movement continues to get noticed across Pennsylvania and nationally: On Tuesday, Philadelphia’s terrific independent education publication, The Notebook, featured our piece on high-stakes test scores and teacher evaluation, “Evaluating What?,” as its lead article. [The Notebook, 10-30-12] For the record, I strongly believe Pittsburgh would benefit from a similar publication, dedicated to reporting on regional educational issues.

And last week, Diane Ravitch posted the entire text of our article, “Charters are Cash Cows,” about Pennsylvania’s top political campaign donors and their heavy investment in charter schools. Ravitch introduced the piece saying:

“I have had some good debates with friends and colleagues who support charter schools. I think there is a role for them in meeting needs that public schools cannot meet: charter schools for the autistic, charter schools for dropouts, charter schools are kids who utterly lack motivation. Charters should boast of how many low-performing kids they have recruited, not their test scores. When their tests scores are high, it usually means they are skimming or excluding the very students they should be seeking out. Charters might also be a way to test innovations, but more typically they are boot camps, which is not at all innovative. If they exist to innovate, they should be committed to collaboration with public schools, not competition. But that is not what charter schools today are about. They are about winning. And as this Pennsylvania blogger explains, some are about money.” [DianeRavitch.net, 10-24-12]

The national news source, AlterNet, also picked up this piece. [“Don’t Be Fooled: For Investors, Charter Schools are Cash Cows” (AlterNet,10-25-12)] They get 2.3 million unique monthly visitors to the site, have 42,000 followers on Facebook, and 24,000 on Twitter. So when AlterNet publishes a Yinzercation piece, our grassroots receives good national coverage, and our ripples extend even further.

This is how we will win the battle for public education. It’s all about growing our grassroots movement and continuing to reach out through our networks to keep those ripples going. Can you get five of your friends to subscribe to Yinzercation? Enter your email address and hit the “Sign me up” button to get these pieces delivered directly to your inbox. It’s simple really. Together we make waves.

Libraries (and Librarians) Matter

First the good news: Today is the day to celebrate our Manchester Miracle! Just a few weeks ago, Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 had only 40 books in the fiction section of its library. Now, because of the incredible response of the networks we have built together through this grassroots public education movement, those bare shelves are teeming with books. And because the local community embraced this effort, the Manchester school library now has completely new paint, carpeting, lighting, furniture, circulation desk, and even student computers. The new space will be unveiled today at a ceremony open to the public at 3PM (1612 Manhattan Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15233).

In addition to the incredible list of volunteers and contributions we’ve already documented (see “The Manchester Miracle” for details), many other folks have recently stepped up to the plate. In consultation with the school’s teachers and students, Perlora interior designer Craig McDonald designed the new library, which will also feature murals donated by illustrator Dave Klug (you have seen his work in Highlights magazine, among other places). Much of the makeover occurred just this past week, courtesy of a group of Sam’s Club executives recruited by Manchester neighbor Kezia Ellison. Ms. Ellison runs an organization called Educating Teens, Inc., which also roped in CORO Pittsburgh’s NEXT Leaders Northside program to launch a new “Manchester Reads” project.

“Manchester Reads” will recruit mentors from the community to read to students at the school. Ellison also plans to use images of local adults reading their favorite books on a series of outdoor posters that kids will see to “drive home the point that people they know and live near them enjoy reading.” They will also have middle school students reading to elementary students, to reinforce skills and serve as role models. And the program will recruit volunteers to assist with library circulation during the week.

This is going to be an amazing program and much of this work is far beyond what even a well-resourced school library could ordinarily manage. But that last item – recruiting volunteers to assist with circulation – points to the much bigger underlying problem of inadequate funding and staffing in our school libraries.

And so the not-so-good-news: Here in Pittsburgh, only 14 out of 51 schools currently have a full time librarian. Most of the district’s librarians have five schools assigned to them, which means that students are only getting a professional librarian at their school one day per week. That librarian can’t see every kid in a school on a single day, which means that most students are really only getting to their library once every few weeks at best. In some schools, shelves are stacked with gorgeous books that essentially cannot be checked out, hostage to insufficient staffing. But the problem goes far beyond merely getting books into students’ hands. We have forgotten the real, tangible educational benefit of having school librarians.

Want some evidence? A new study released yesterday finds that students in our state with access to a full-time, certified school librarian have far better educational outcomes. Researchers from the Colorado based RSL Research Group looked at Pennsylvania’s standardized test scores (the PSSA) in reading and writing and tracked student achievement against five school library factors: staffing, collections, digital resources and technology infrastructure, library access, and funding. [Education Law Center Library Report, 10-23-12] By far the most important factor was having a full-time library professional. In other words, it’s great to have all those new books and digital collections and a space open for classroom teachers to take their students when time allows, but without a full-time librarian in each of our schools, we are still short-changing our kids.

Here are some highlights from the report that ought to make all of us concerned about equity and our racial achievement gap sit up and take notice:

  • Students who have access to a full-time, certified librarian scored higher on the PSSA Reading Test than those students who do not have such access. This finding is true for all students, regardless of their socio-economic, racial/ethnic, and/or disability status.
  • For several student groups that tend to experience achievement gaps—economically disadvantaged, Hispanic, Black, and those with IEPs (Individualized Education Programs)—Reading and Writing results are markedly better when those students attend a school with a librarian and library support staff, according to the research. In fact, they benefit more proportionally than the general student population.
  • Nearly twice as many high school students who have access to a full-time, certified librarian scored Advanced on the PSSA Writing test as those students without access to a full-time, certified librarian, according to the report.
  • Considering all students, those students with access to a full-time, certified librarian are almost three times as likely to have “Advanced” scores on the PSSA Writing Test as those students without access to a full-time, certified librarian.

This is apparently the first time anyone has tracked the impact of librarians on student’s writing, and the results suggest just how short sighted it is to slash library budgets. Debra Kachel, Pennsylvania School Librarians Association Legislation Committee Co-Chairperson, explained, “The overall findings fit with research we’ve seen in other states—access to a full-time, certified school librarian significantly impacts students achievement in reading.” And she noted that the new data on student writing “underscores the larger impact having a full-time, certified school librarian has on skills, such as writing, that prepare students for college and the workforce.” Nancy Potter, Education Law Center Attorney, agreed that reducing library resources “has extreme consequences for Pennsylvania’s public school students, especially the most vulnerable students.” [Education Law Center Library Report, 10-23-12]

If you would like to learn more about this new study of libraries and public education, please join the Pennsylvania School Library Project on Thursday, November 15, 2012 at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead at 5PM. (More information and registration here.) In the meantime, I plan to go celebrate our Manchester Miracle today and hope to see you there!

The Manchester Miracle

Look what you did. Yes you. All of you here in Yinzer Nation have created a miracle on the Northside. Just three weeks ago, the library at Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 had only forty books in its fiction section. Sheila May-Stein, newly hired by the District to rotate through several buildings to rebuild their libraries, snapped the now-iconic photo of those empty shelves.

As you know, our call to fill those shelves went completely viral and literally thousands of people around the world shared this story. Celebrities were tweeting and blogging about it; we were on the news; we were on the front page of the paper. As of today, you have purchased over 850 brand new books for the library from an Amazon wish list. By the end of that first week, boxes had started pouring in from as far away as England, Canada, and Australia. People near and far dropped off literally thousands of donated books. [See “Library Books and Equity” for the original story and “A Picture is Worth 1,000 Books” for an explanation of how this situation occurred in the first place.]

But even more important than all of those wonderful books, is the way that this Manchester Miracle has pulled together the entire community. School libraries have become one of the canaries in the coalmine of public education: rather than accept their demise, Southwest Pennsylvania has stepped up to pump oxygen back into the system. Most importantly, the local neighborhood has embraced the Manchester library and is shaping this action to meet its own needs. That’s what real community empowerment looks like.

Get out your tissues, because the following list (and slideshow at the end) might just make you cry with happiness. And as you read, please look for further volunteer opportunities! We still need lots of help coordinating this Manchester Miracle:

  • Through her foundation Educating Teens, Inc. (which does HIV Awareness and community uplift), Manchester neighborhood resident Kezia Ellison approached Sam’s Club and got them to commit to completely refurbishing the library. They will repaint, install new lights, carpeting, shelves, furniture, and a circulation desk. And they will donate a bank of computers for the students to use. The Pittsburgh school board approved this last night and the work will be done in just two weeks! (That’s a miracle right there.)
  • Perlora has donated two designers who will work to transform the space.
  • Kezia Ellison is also working with the school’s #1 amazing community volunteer, Mr. Wallace Sapp, who is in the school almost every day, on a new project they’re calling Manchester Reads. They have big ideas for getting local celebrities on posters with books in their hands, and for using the school library as a local community resource.
  • The students and staff at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Bethel Park raised over $234 to buy books. They used buckets and signs to advertise, then voted on which books on the Amazon wish list they wanted to donate.
  • The Literary Guild book club at Baldwin High School in the South Hills is sponsoring a book drive.
  • A second grader at Pittsburgh Colfax held a bake sale at his family’s yard sale, and decided to split the money between his school library and Manchester’s. When Sheila picked up his little card, $20 slid out, and she said, “If 7- or 8-year old boys can go to this much effort to heal the world, surely the rest of us can. Thank you, darling boy!”
  • A mom from Mt. Lebanon brought a flatbed of book donations to Manchester that her 8-year old daughter and her daughter’s friends had collected.
  • Amy Boardley Watson, Kristie Orchard-Lindblom, and Jen Primack are making large pillows for children to lounge on while reading books – especially helpful for children in the school’s autism program.
  • Famous children’s author Laurie Halse Anderson not only blogged and tweeted about us, she sent a huge package including her picture books, books unique to the African American experience, her novels, and a gorgeous audio book collection.
  • Katha Pollitt, author and award-winning The Nation columnist, sent a huge box of books and a personal note.
  • The PPG corporate librarians are working on setting up a two-year grant for the school.
  • Students in the University of Pittsburgh’s Library Information Science (MLIS) program want to volunteer to help catalogue all the new books.
  • Bridget Belardi-Creath (a Pitt MLIS graduate with Sheila) typed out 2,000 labels for books and sent them in.
  • Teresa Smith, a mother and teacher at Manchester, bought a brand new ficus tree for the library.
  • One day recently, Sheila reported that, “A drop-dead movie star of a parent engagement specialist came through the door with a plan to get the community and parents involved.”
  • Rachel Lamory of Animal Nature collected many books to donate.
  • A group of inspiring women from the local Bidwell Church are looking forward to volunteering.
  • Brenda Simpson, a grandmother from the Manchester neighborhood, has been coming in to volunteer for hours before she goes to work in the Post Office.
  • Keturah Wasler, a volunteer from East Liberty, works all day like a whirlwind.
  • Kathie is a mom from Lawrenceville with kids in private schools who is so passionate about public education that she has been volunteering entire days of her time to work in the library.
  • Reading is FUNdamental has volunteered.
  • Bridget Kennedy from the Leadership Program at CORO Pittsburgh has been volunteering. Can you join these folks and volunteer a few hours of your time during the school day?
  • Joe Wos from ToonSeum set up a 20% discount program on any graphic novels (a favorite among kinds) purchased for donation to the cause at the museum. They will also be sending over a slew of new graphic novels and comics and have offered a free cartooning workshop for the kids. Who can follow up with them?
  • Beginning with Books co-founder donated a large number of books and then wrote to her book club and two writing groups to help spread the word
  • Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild offered to have a book drive and get involved with the school. They would be a terrific partner for a followup celebration. Who would like to coordinate?
  • A local Usborne Books representative would like to set up an online book fair. Anyone like to coordinate with her?
  • Phat Man Dee, a local jazz band, is interested in doing a fundraiser. Who wants to speak with them?
  • The Allegheny Library branch wants to help, but we need someone to coordinate with them.
  • The boys in the Pittsburgh Colfax middle level “Guys Read” club plan to organize joint field trips with the middle level Manchester students to talk about some of their favorite books together.
  • Carnegie Mellon University reached out to the District and offered to connect local corporations with individual school’s Amazon wish lists. It’s possible that other schools will be using the Manchester model and this will help fill the shelves at the remaining schools without libraries.
  • A national group of writers was so inspired by our work that they started a project, “Fill The Shelves,” that is using our model around the country. They have already helped several school libraries.
  • Deborah El, children’s librarian in the Carnegie Library system, helped build the Amazon wish list, and is keeping it populated. Haven’t bought a book yet? The list is still open for business.
  • Katherine Becker Laney, librarian at Sewickley Academy, picked through their collection for duplicates and sent them over to Manchester.
  • Jonathan Mayo got in his truck and drove thousands of donated books from Sheila’s house to the school. Then he got the Pirates to donate some sports books.
  • Joe Starkey, a local sports writer for the Trib and radio personality, came into the school this week with lots of donated sports books and read to the students.

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Are you sniffling yet? I hope you are feeling inspired by this incredible action. And I also hope we remember the underlying problems of equity and funding that we must work to address head-on. If anything, this list ought to remind us of the incredible amount of work it takes to operate and maintain a school library – work that cannot be sustainably provided by volunteers and that cannot happen when our schools only have a librarian one day per week.

Pittsburgh’s new equity plan calls for a library in every school, but does not place a full time librarian in each. In fact, only 14 out of 51 schools currently have a full time librarian and most of the district’s librarians have five schools assigned to them. Some schools that used to have a full time professional have lost those services, which is really a step away from equity for all. Through staff reductions, the District also lost its head librarian, an essential position for coordinating efforts throughout the city, planning collection development, and capitalizing on economies of scale when purchasing books – none of which now seems to be happening.

Pittsburgh alone has lost over $28 MILLION in the past two years of draconian state budget cuts. [See newly revised PSEA Budget Calculator] We need to be asking serious questions of both the District and our state legislators and holding them accountable for adequate and equitable funding for our schools. But if our grassroots movement can pull off the Manchester Miracle, surely it’s up to the task.

A Picture is Worth 1,000 Books

How did this happen? That’s what everyone wants to know. How does a public school library wind up with only 40 usable books of fiction on its shelves in a school that serves kids from pre-Kindergarten through the 8th grade? It turns out the answer has everything to do with state budgets, national priorities, and a long history of under- and unequal-funding of schools in our poorest neighborhoods.

Let’s start with the good news. Our call to action to Stack-the-Shelves at Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 went completely viral this week. Literally thousands of people around the country and across the globe saw our original post and blog piece (see “Library Books and Equity”) and within hours thousands more had shared the story with their networks on Facebook and twitter. We got re-tweeted by actress Allison Pill from the HBO series The Newsroom, children’s author Laurie Halse Anderson (who wrote Speak), and mega-award winning author Neil Gaiman (The Sandman, Coraline, The Graveyard Book, and many others). A new meme created by Kathy Newman captures this moment exactly:

By week’s end, hundreds and hundreds of donated books started pouring into the school, including over 650 new books purchased from an Amazon Wish List, and the Post-Gazette featured our grassroots movement on the front page. [Post-Gazette, 9-22-12] Sheila May-Stein, the intrepid librarian hired temporarily by the District to get Manchester’s library back on its feet, reports that, “Manchester Craftsman Guild is getting involved with the school, PPG offered a 3-year grant, Toonseum is donating cartooning classes, a local storyteller is going to tell stories and teach sign language, Pitt’s School of Library and Information Science students are going to help catalog, [and] Jonathan Mayo is going to help to fix up the physical space.”

Manchester is a distressed community, but it cares about the school and this grassroots action is helping to support even further engagement. Two women from the neighborhood were the very first people through the door with a giant box of donated books. Others from the Northside area are stepping up to volunteer in multiple ways, such as offering to read to the kids and helping students make posters based on the books they’ve read to decorate their new library.

The first people in the door to donate books were these wonderful women from the community.

This is an amazing success story for our grassroots movement and demonstrates the immense power we have when we act together. At the same time, it illustrates the much bigger issue of equity in public education and the choices that are being made at the local, state, and federal level. So here’s the short answer to that pressing question “How did this happen?”

For many years, Pittsburgh Public Schools gave principals flexibility in how they spent some of their funds in what is called their site-based budget. Flexibility can be a good thing and in theory allows schools to respond to local needs. However, when the entire school budget is not sufficient to cover all high-priority needs, principals have been forced to “rob Peter to pay Paul,” essentially stealing from library budgets to pay for things like teachers.

This occurred for years at places such as Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 with the tacit approval of the District. This doesn’t mean that other schools in the city were rolling in dough while the predominantly African-American Manchester didn’t have books, but the fact remains that other schools were making different choices while keeping their libraries. Some had parents raising money for some of the “extras” such as field trips to help free up the site-based budget for other needs. And it appears there was plain old inequity in the way resources were distributed among the District’s schools.

Part of the problem has been that the District did not put school libraries on a hard funding line, so they were fungible, and their budgets could be raided for other highly critical needs. This kind of structural issue creates a false dichotomy: we can either have a teacher or a librarian. Yet kids need both. All our students deserve a full time librarian, as well as art, music, language, and gym. These are not fat to be cut in lean times and we need to ensure that funding is available for all of these things.

The District’s new Equity program commits to having a library in every school this year, which is a good start. But one of the ways they have achieved that is by taking away flexibility with site-based budgets. When schools are not sufficiently funded, this actually creates new problems – and they can be very real problems with racial equity.

A quick example to illustrate: the city school where my sons attend lost its Title 1 funding a couple years ago because as the school population grew with more local, white families sending their children back into the public system the proportion of low-income (and mostly African-American) students dropped. Their absolute numbers actually stayed the same, but their overall percentage in the student population dropped just below the cut-off line for this federal program, which had been providing crucial funding for tutoring programs and teachers. When the District cut the school’s Parent Engagement Specialist this year – a key position for engaging those low-income families in their students’ education – the loss of flexibility with the site-based budget meant the principal was not permitted to shift funds to cover this critical need.

Of course, a much better equity action plan would be to adequately resource all schools, to make sure they have excellent leadership, and then to empower them with sufficient local control to meet local needs. When schools are not adequately funded, they are forced to make impossible choices. And Pennsylvania has been chronically under-funding public education for years (we rank 44/50 on how much we spend at the state level, forcing local towns to pick up the tab, contributing mightily to the inequity problem). We also have a broken funding formula that does not fairly distribute the state dollars we do spend.

This has affected kids all over Pennsylvania. One teacher from a North Philadelphia school wrote that, “not only have we had no library for at least 5 years, but it is now a shell. No books, no shelves, no computers, and no librarian.” She asked, “How can we develop a love and passion for reading when there are no books at school?” and added, “Our kids cannot even go to the public library in the neighborhood, because it is too dangerous.” Carol H. Rasco, CEO of Reading is Fundamental, the nation’s largest literacy program, explained that, “Currently there are 16 million children in our nation living in poverty, the highest number in two decades, and in low-income neighborhoods, there is only one book for every 300 children.” [Washington Post, 4-22-12]

That’s the equivalent of Manchester preK-8 having one book in the whole school. Our grassroots viral effort will make sure that Pittsburgh’s children have thousands of books to read. In this way (and in many, many others) Pittsburgh is very fortunate. But now we need to also make sure that there is a long-term plan for our school libraries.

Book collections don’t maintain themselves and a librarian one day per week in a school is simply not enough. They can barely check books in and out in that time, let alone collaborate with teachers to build on lessons being learned in the classroom, help students find appropriate reading material, teach information gathering skills, run reading clubs and other special programs, host book fairs, and get to know students and their individual needs. What’s more, under the new Equity plan, some schools are actually losing access to their librarians who used to be available three to five days per week, and now are being shared between schools. We are lucky to still have a librarian at my sons’ school, but she now has two classes she must teach on top of her regular librarian duties. This should not be.

I am hoping the District will address the staffing issue, but it will require a tough, honest conversation in our entire community. For instance, do we need to close still more schools, perhaps some of the smallest, so that we effectively have fewer total libraries and can fully staff them? I don’t know the answer to that question, but we need to talk about it. We will also need to know how the District will ensure that these thousands of donated books get properly catalogued and, once we fill the shelves at Manchester, how they will be distributed to the schools that need them. Finally, what will the District do with the funds they would have spent on books this year now that volunteers have stepped up to fill the library shelves?

In some ways, our well-meaning action has created a wrinkle for Pittsburgh Public Schools. Our donations do not fit into a well-planned scheme for developing school collections; there will be gaps and duplication; we’ve created an immediate need for resources to deal with the piles of boxes arriving at the school. But the outpouring of support for our schools is incredibly precious. This is a golden opportunity for the District to build on the goodwill of the community and to reinforce meaningful parent engagement with public education. And this grassroots movement will continue to ask tough questions about state budget priorities, too, which have perpetuated this inequality.

The first boxes of new books arrive in the office at Pittsburgh Manchester.

Library Books and Equity

Here’s a story to warm your hearts and fire up your engines all at the same time. In just 24 hours, Yinzer Nation has gone viral again, this time rising to the cause of a pitiful situation in a local public school library.

On Tuesday afternoon, Sheila May-Stein posted the following photo to my wall on Facebook, explaining that this is the entire fiction section in the library at Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8. There are only 40 usable books. She wrote that she was “Feeling overwhelmed and despondent when I see pictures of ipad labs and brand new books and all the other privileges white suburban kids have when I compare it to what the kids at this school have. They are learning every day that they aren’t worth clean, fresh paint and unstained carpets and books that aren’t 65 years old.”

Manchester, a public school in the city’s long-struggling Northside neighborhood, has not had a librarian or a library in years. The students are over 90% African-American. These facts alone raises serious issues about equity within the Pittsburgh Public School district, since schools in other parts of the city have maintained lovely libraries. Last year, 49 of the city’s 59 schools had libraries, begging the question, what happened to the missing ten? However, the District has recently committed itself to having library services at all schools starting this academic year. [PPS “Equity: Getting to All” report, p. 20] As a result, they have hired Sheila on a temporary basis to work at Manchester getting the library re-opened.

A picture can be worth a thousand words, and her photograph of those destitute shelves has sparked a firestorm. On Tuesday evening, I posted the photo to Yinzercation’s Facebook page and wrote:

We can change this situation right now, this week. We are starting a book donation drive — perhaps make Manchester your new library-sister-school? The kids need FICTION only, appropriate for kids in 2nd-8th grade in GREAT condition. All donations can be dropped off on Sheila’s porch in Squirrel Hill (contact us for address if you’re local) or, boxed up, and sent to Manchester Elementary, labeled for the Library. You can also check out the Amazon Wish List for Manchester if you prefer to send them something new.

I told my boys about this situation in the car on the way home today and they were completely baffled that other Pittsburgh schools did not have Colfax’s wonderful library full of books. They immediately came home and started collecting books. My oldest said, “I can find 20 right here — and that’s already half of what the school has.” His brother added, “I bet I can find 10 friends to donate books, too, and then we’ll have at least 200!” I think he’s right. We took literally five minutes to gather up a beautiful huge pile and I will take them over to Sheila tomorrow.

Within 24 hours, over 600 people had seen that original post and over 118 people had shared it on their own walls and with their networks. We started hearing from people all across the United States and even abroad who want to help. Boxes started appearing on Sheila’s porch and by last night over 80 brand new books had been ordered from the Amazon Wish List. That number is bound to explode today as word continues to spread on social media:

  • Neil Gaiman, the mega-award winning English author of The Sandman, Coraline, and many other books and graphic novels, tweeted about this with a link to our original post;
  • kids at another Pittsburgh public school donated gift certificates they had received for their own book fair;
  • a teacher is taking up a collection in his room;
  • businesses are sending around the notice on their internal mailing lists;
  • a major local non-profit is interested in getting involved;
  • Samaire Provost, a U.S. author, is sending two full sets of her Paranormal series geared for kids;
  • A woman from Manchester in the U.K. wrote, “How’s your ancient literature (still fiction!) section? Every library should have one. … I’ll see what I can send over the pond.”

Sheila reports that, “When I told the Principal she just about cried. Wait ‘til the kids see! Wait ‘til the loving, overworked teachers see! Wait ‘til the overworked, exhausted, dedicated parents see these books coming home in their children’s hands! You are showing Manchester’s children that THEY MATTER.”

Here again are those addresses so you, too, can be a part of this success story.

  • Pittsburgh Manchester PreK-8 (label packages for the Library)
    1612 Manhattan Street
    Pittsburgh, PA 15233
  • Sheila’s Amazon Wish List for Manchester
  • Sheila’s front porch (if you’re local; contact us if you need the address)

Sheila has promised to share photos with us as the shelves begin to fill. And if they overflow, all that goodwill be donated to other Pittsburgh Public School libraries that are being reconstituted this year. This is what we can do, working together. As I said in my original post, “Don’t wait. Here’s one small thing we can fix right now. And then we will keep fighting to make sure we are dealing head-on with the underlying equity issue that permits this to happen in our schools.”