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Citizen of the Week: Danielle Mancinelli

A teacher takes it upon herself to fill a school's empty library.

Citizen of the Week: Danielle Mancinelli

A teacher takes it upon herself to fill a school's empty library.

Danielle Mancinelli knew there would be many challenges to her new job as a reading specialist at Francis D. Pastorius Elementary last year. The Germantown school was one of the lowest performing in the district, with many students reading a full three years behind their grade level.

Danielle Manicnelli, Reading Specialist, Pastorius Elementary
Danielle Manicnelli, Reading Specialist, Pastorius Elementary

But Mancinelli was unprepared for what she saw when she walked in to the school’s library for the first time last August: Nothing.“The library was this gorgeous space with beautiful wooden shelves,” says Mancinelli. “But they were all empty. I couldn’t believe it: Where were the books?”

The School District made Pastorius a Renaissance school last year, turning over the reins of the troubled elementary to Mastery Charter, which took over the building in August 2013. First, though, the District stripped its library, sending the books to District-run schools elsewhere in the city. (The District contends that it only does this when charter companies request it; Mastery officials say they did not ask for the books’ removal.) Which means that Mancinelli has to teach reading to her students without books that her students can take home. This has real consequences: Mancinelli recently asked her 5th graders to read for 30 minutes at home and then write about what they read. Ten of the students told her later they had no books at home with which to complete the assignment.

Mancinelli found a beautiful library—with empty bookshelves. She decided to fill them herself. “Research shows that at least 20 minutes of reading a night significantly helps to improve your reading skills,” she says. “Not having a library makes my job much harder.

Mancinelli spent her undergraduate years at Temple volunteering for Treehouse Books, a literacy program in North Philadelphia. Through Teach For America after graduation, she taught 2nd grade in New Orleans for two years. There, she realized that reading is everything: “If you’re not strong in reading, you struggle in every other subject,” she says. “You can’t even do math, because you can’t answer word problems.” At Pastorius, Mastery worked last year to put books into classrooms, so students could at least read while in school. But Mastery had no immediate plans to fill the library. So Mancinelli decided to do it herself. First, she took a crash course in what libraries need: Books with library bindings; technology to track and sort them; staff to shelve and care for them. She called Harrity Elementary, another Mastery school that opened a library last year; and friends who work in fundraising. (“I teach reading,” she notes. “I don’t know anything about raising money.”) Last March, she presented Pastorius’s principal with a proposal to open the school’s library with 4,600 books—if she can raise $50,000.

When Pastorius became a Renaissance school, the District moved its books to other District-run schools. District officials say they only do this at the request of Renaissance schools’ charter operators. In this case, Mastery says it never made such a request.

In October, Mancinelli’s campaign received a $15,000 grant. She has also raised another $2,600 through a letter-writing campaign from school teachers and partnerships with some local literacy groups, like Bring On The Books and Odyssey of the Mind. She has applied for other grant money and is planning a school phone-a-thon for this fall. If all goes as planned, Mancinelli hopes to open the Pastorius Library in January. And then, who knows what her students will be able to accomplish?

Last spring, Mancinelli led a group of 12 students in the city’s Reading Olympics, sharing two copies of 10 books that Mancinelli kept in her office. The Pastorius team came in first place. More importantly, they were exposed to books they loved. One girl went up three grade levels; another learned to enjoy reading so much, Mancinelli loaned him her copies of the Narnia series.

“Imagine if we had a library, where students could check out books that they love–like the new Diary of A Wimpy Kid,” Mancinelli says. “Students could be reading all the time. Think of how much they could grow.”

  • For more information about how to donate to Pastorius, follow the instructions on the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/PastoriusLibrary/info.
  • Also: See how the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children has helped to reopen 17 shuttered libraries in Philadelphia.

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