Books for ARThouse Kids

Remember our Manchester Miracle? Two years ago we helped engage literally thousands of people all over the world in a book drive that wound up completely renovating the library at Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8. [For original story, see “Library Books and Equity”] It’s time for another miracle.

Our friend, the amazing artist Vanessa German, is opening a reading room in the new ARThouse. This art-making space for children in Homewood literally started on Vanessa’s front porch as neighborhood kids gathered to watch her paint and make sculptures. The Love Front Porch project outgrew the porch and moved into a nearby house that Vanessa purchased with support from the community. It’s a beautiful place where young people gather after school to feed their creative souls, make art, eat snacks, do homework – and read.



Vanessa explains, “we are building a reading room at the new ARThouse because i noticed this year that kids would come right after school not going to their homes or homework programs and they’d sit right down in the midst of the paint and scramble and attempt to find 5 equations that equal 132. with, not surprisingly, great frustration. also the reading room because it is going to be soft and quiet and comfortable and, hopefully, filled with reams and reams of adventures.”


The architect of our Manchester Miracle, children’s librarian extraordinaire Sheila May-Stein, has hand-picked a list of books for the ARThouse. You can purchase new books from this Amazon Wishlist she has compiled and they will be sent directly to the ARThouse. (If you have books shipped from another source, please send them c/o Vanessa German, 7803 Hamilton Ave., Pittsburgh PA 15208.) You may also drop off gently used children’s and teen books on the porches of Yinzercation steering committee members Kathy Newman (Squirrel Hill: 5353 Beeler Street) or Tara McElfresh (Morningside: 1001 Chislett St).

As many in our community already know, Sheila is having major surgery tomorrow and has asked that folks send books to the ARThouse along with their healing thoughts for her extended recovery. What an amazing thing Ms. Sheila has started. And it’s already taking off:

  • In the past 48 hours, over 150 books have been purchased from the list.
  • Writer Katha Pollitt from The Nation, who supported our Manchester Miracle, got actress Salli Richardson of “I Am Legend” to retweet and rapper Missy Elliot to favorite her tweet about the project.
  • Children’s author Arnold Adoff put our message out on his Facebook page.
  • Homewood native Robin Walker Williams, is arranging for Vanessa to be on early morning TV shows to discuss the reading room project.
  • The founder of Awesome Pittsburgh bought 7 books and is sharing the message. (And Tara McElfresh is going to write a $1,000 grant to Awesome Pittsburgh for the ARThouse!)
  • The Homeless Children’s Education Fund is sending books.
  • The Homewood Children’s Village has 100 books they are donating.

Sheila asks, “What can you say when people all over Pittsburgh decide to take time out of their day to send biographies of Handel and Mozart to children in Homewood? When Lakota origin tales and giant coffee table books with full color plates of Basqiat’s work are on their way to wondering eyes and little hands? Each book a message straight from a heart to a child: you matter. you have value. you belong on this earth.” These children are all of our children. They belong to all of us:

Vanessa German: “we made books and ate pizza last week. we were the writers, publishers and makers. we are so bold.”

“we made books and ate pizza last week. we were the writers, publishers and makers. we are so bold.” – Vanessa German

“Miyah made a great journal last week. high design if you'd have asked me. yesterday she came in. pulled last week's journal from her book bag. with the pages filled. she then went into production on a new journal.i remarked. you could be an entrepenuer. a young book maker. i went outside to work with some of the younger artists. when i came back in at the end of the evening. she had 5 new books laid out. creating masterful, colorfilled covers. and she is SOOOO quiet. she moves like a light wind from the east. remarkable.” – Vanessa German

“Miyah made a great journal last week. high design if you’d have asked me. yesterday she came in. pulled last week’s journal from her book bag. with the pages filled. she then went into production on a new journal.i remarked. you could be an entrepenuer. a young book maker. i went outside to work with some of the younger artists. when i came back in at the end of the evening. she had 5 new books laid out. creating masterful, colorfilled covers. and she is SOOOO quiet. she moves like a light wind from the east. remarkable.” – Vanessa German

Vanessa posted this poem on October 9th, when we had lost three African-American teenagers in one week to violence:

don’t think that it isn’t heartbreaking that our children are being killed and left for useless and worthless in a world that all too often neither celebrates, acknowledges or even considers their inherent, immutable, wisdom and beauty. don’t think that we don’t grieve them all. because we do. and every child we love. is every child we love. and we love the children we love as we love ALL the children whose names and places we know and do not know. and we celebrate them. in art and dancing and joy and food. and we celebrate them as the celebration in and of itself is an honoring of their remarkable remarkable-ness, is an honoring of their profound and mysterious and glorious humanity. we honor them as we honor and celebrate ourselves. and every joy we share in. is a healing. every ounce of paint and glue and water, every seed of glitter every juice box every t-shirt every over-crowded classroom Arthouse and city park is a healing. and we grieve. and the grief is an honoring. and we celebrate them in our humanity, in the courage of our human commitment and political will– we stand for us all. Love.

Can you send a book from the Amazon Wishlist and then help spread the word? Vanessa German, the ARThouse, and the children of Homewood need our help. Let’s make another miracle.

Vanessa German

Vanessa German performing at our Rally for Public Education, February 2013.

Legislators Back to – This?

Welcome back, legislators. I know today is your first day back in session after two months off for your summer break. A lot has happened since the beginning of July. But it’s hard to leave the sunshine and put away your flip-flops. I get it. So maybe you just need to ease into things.

Maybe that’s why the very first thing the Senate Education Committee will consider when it meets tomorrow morning is a bill that would allow teachers and other school staff to carry concealed guns. Because you can’t actually be serious. You’re planning to sip your coffee, shake the sand out of your briefcase, and then vote a quick “no” on this ridiculous legislation, right?

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Don White (a Republican from Indiana, PA), said that, “we must look at all options when it comes to improving the safety and security” of our schools, and that teachers need “more choices … to protect students.” [The Morning Call, 9-12-14] Um, yeah. Because gun toting teachers are a great idea and really protect kids. Not. While you were sitting by the pool last week, did you happen to see the story about the Utah teacher whose legally concealed gun went off in the bathroom, sending her to the hospital with injuries from flying toilet shrapnel? I kid you not, you can’t make this stuff up. [Tribune Review, 9-11-14] And this begs the question: what if that had been a child in her classroom rather than a potty that she managed to accidentally blow up?

While you are busy debating the supposed merits of permitting such scenarios to occur in Pennsylvania classrooms, let us remind you of the real danger our children are facing every single day: the de-funding of their public schools. Our students have been back in their classrooms for three weeks now without the resources they deserve. Because of four years of draconian state budget cuts and austerity, our kids are missing 20,000 of their teachers, countless programs, and basic supplies.

The situation in Philadelphia is so bad that parents there are suing the state. [The Notebook, 9-11-14] Last year, families from across that city filed 825 complaints with the Pennsylvania Department of Education (which has been running Philadelphia schools for the past 13 years) in a campaign organized by Parents United. The complaints detailed serious threats to student health and safety, over-crowding, missing textbooks, and a lack of critical services causing direct harm to kids. Yet the state did not investigate a single complaint and now parents are forced to sue to hold decision makers accountable for conditions in the schools.

Last week Post-Gazette columnist Brian O’Neill wrote a great article about Pittsburgh Manchester K-8, two years after our “Manchester Miracle” at that school. Despite thousands of new books donated by the community and a gorgeous new library space – and despite amazing volunteers such as Mr. Wallace Sapp and Mr. Joseph Kennedy featured in the article – Manchester still only has a librarian once a week and some of the starkest disparities in the city. [Post-Gazette, 9-11-14] My own middle school children do not have library at all! That’s right: at a school with one of the largest “achievement gaps” in Pittsburgh, not one middle school student has access to a single library book.

Dearest legislators, our kids need more library books in their lives, not guns. This crazy bill you will be talking about disrespects our children who face an epidemic of gun violence in their lives. (You might recall the piece I wrote last year after one particularly grueling week in which three different children at our school lost family members to gun violence). So, Senator White, if you and your colleagues are serious about protecting our children in their schools, you could start by funding them – adequately, equitably, predictably, and sustainably. You can even leave your sunglasses on, if it makes you feel better.

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.


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 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.


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?” [, 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.” [, 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!