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.”