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Ideas We Should Steal: Books Around the Block

Want to ensure that Philadelphia children can read? Let’s do what they did in Minneapolis: Get books into their homes

Did your parents read you bedtime stories? Did they help you with homework? With filling out college or job applications? For some Philadelphians—nearly one in four adults are illiterate and nearly half are low literate—these tasks are difficult or impossible. And children aren’t faring much better: Only about half of 4th graders in Philly read at grade level—something not helped by the fact that most Philly public schools lack a functioning library with a full-time librarian.

Researchers have long connected children’s future literacy level to the income and educational attainment of their parents. This has led Philadelphia and other cities to emphasize placing school dropouts into GED programs or other school re-entry initiatives to boost literacy—and income levels—for future generations. One look at the stats makes clear that these approaches have not fully solved the problem.

Minneapolis is taking a different approach—and finding success.

In 2012, Melanie Sanco, the grants director for Minneapolis Public Schools was struck by depressing literacy numbers, particularly in North Minneapolis, where the majority of the population lives at or below the poverty level. In looking for a solution, she came across 2010 research on literacy from the University of Nevada, Reno which offered an alternate view: It’s not the educational attainment of your parents that is the greatest predictor of academic achievement after all, the study said. It’s the number of books in your house.

“You get a lot of ‘bang for your book’,” says the study’s author, UN-Reno sociology professor Mariah Evans. Having as few as 20 books in the home has a significant impact on a child’s level of literacy, and the effect increases with the more books you add. A child with parents who had only three years of school but has access to 500 books at home will achieve the same level of education as a child with parents who have had 16 years of school, the study says.

Sanco used the new study to forge Books Around the Block, a partnership between the School District of Minneapolis and Little Free Library, a Wisconsin organization that manufactures and distributes tiny libraries the size of birdhouses that are mounted on posts and stocked with books on a simple “take a book, leave a book” model. Sanco’s idea was to have a Little Free Library (LFL) on every block of North Minneapolis to create an endemic change in the city. By installing Little Free Libraries throughout low-income communities, she hoped to create a culture of reading throughout the neighborhood, increase positive social interactions around the LFLs and create positive learning environment for students at home as well as at school.

“Students already have access to books in the schools,” says Melissa Holewa, the current staff member and spokesperson for Books Around the Block. “But the idea was that if students don’t have books at home it’s like trying to build a house on really loose soil. It’s not going to stay up well.”

The LFLs are maintained and restocked by parents of Minneapolis School District students, who apply to be “stewards” and are awarded the little libraries to place outside their homes if they meet the criteria. (Stewards must live in a high-traffic and low-income area, have a child in the neighborhood school, and there must not be another LFL nearby). A single staff member at the district oversees the program, processing the applications for new stewards, managing book donations, installing the LFLs, and doing outreach to neighborhood schools and families to generate awareness of the program.

Funding for this staff position—$35,388 over three years—comes from a VISTA grant, an arm of AmeriCorps that is geared specifically towards poverty alleviation. The School District of Minneapolis donated office space and storage space for the program and its books, as well as access to school district vehicles and printing for flyers and promotional materials. All other program expenses—books and funds to purchase the physical materials for the libraries—come from private donations. Little Free Library set up a gift fund on their national website where people can donate to Books Around the Block, and the program used community build days to galvanize the support of particular Minneapolis communities—a rotary club or boy scout troop—to raise funds for  either pre-made LFLs (about $200 each) or materials for homemade libraries (about $60), which they then assembled and donated.

So far, Books Around the Block has installed 70 LFLs; 40 more have been funded and are in the works. They have received nearly 15,000 books as donations since the program began, 12,800 of which they have distributed to LFLs throughout 32 neighborhoods in the city. Holewa estimates that 12,767 students have taken books home from an LFL.

Even before Books Around the Block, Minneapolis was one of America’s most literate cities. Since the district installed LFLs, it has become more so. According to the 2015 rankings of the largest 77 cities in an annual study by Central Connecticut State University, Minneapolis is now the most literate city in America, up from 3rd in 2012. By comparison, Philadelphia ranks 35th, lagging significantly behind our east coast corridor neighbors Baltimore (15th), and Washington DC (2nd).

The future of the program in Minneapolis is now in doubt: The latest VISTA grant is set to run out, and the district has a new superintendent who, concerned about cutting down the schools’ deficit, did not allocate funding for it. For now that means Books Around the Block will need to rely on existing funds and relationships with donors and stewards. But the momentum is enough to keep it going. Holewa says most of the LFLs are self-sustaining, and that the program still has a large supply of books to fill the new boxes and any gaps.

Could it work in Philadelphia? A smattering of LFLs planted by individuals have cropped up around the city. And on MLKDay 2014, West Philadelphia Alliance for Children—which helps schools fill and staff libraries—organized a build, which generated 11 LFLs. But only two have been installed—one in front of Samuel Huey school, and one at Y-HEP, a health clinic at 15th and Locust that is part of Philadelphia FIGHT. The other nine libraries are still awaiting homes.

“The challenge is to find locations where someone can commit to maintaining the library for the long haul,” says Mica Navarro Lopez, WePAC’s Deputy Executive Director.

Some other nonprofits have made it a priority to get books into children’s homes. Treehouse Books, through Words on Wheels, delivers a book a week for four weeks to 750 children in North Philadelphia. Springboard Collaborative, which runs summer reading programs to combat the summer slide—when low-income students fall further behind their peers because they don’t read— offers 11 free books to any children and families who participate in literacy boosting seminars over the course of the summer.

“We are trying to get books into children’s hands by whatever means possible,” says Aubrey White, Springboard’s Chief Programming Officer. “We want students to see themselves as readers, to have books around, and not have any stress associated with returning that book or not damaging it.”

But those isolated efforts will not reach all the children who need books. That requires a coordinated, city-wide effort of the kind they had in Minneapolis. Philly has taken steps in that direction through its “Read by 4th” program, which aims to double the share of Philadelphia 4th grade students reading at grade level by 2020. This summer, it launched Summer of Wonder, a citywide summer reading initiative, as part of its goal to ensure that, “all children, regardless of family income, read year-round and make learning gains over the summer.”

Could LFLs be part of that effort, too? Perhaps—but only if the District is willing to spend the money and resources to build, install and oversee the street corner libraries. Even $35,000 may be too much of a strain on an already strained budget. “One of the things unique to Philadelphia is that our school district is struggling financially and has been for some years due to the funding structure of Pennsylvania,” says White.

Meanwhile, it’s up to the Treehouses and Springboards and WePacs of the city to create home libraries. WePac’s Lopez says the organization is committed to finding homes for their remaining LFLs, and the West Philadelphia Tool Library has volunteered to help organize a build day to generate more of them, as needed. Now all they need are interested stewards—and as Lopez says, “someone who can really take charge of it.”

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