IT IS A VERY SIMPLE proposition, one stated succinctly the other day by Wendy Williams, a Towson University education major from Columbia.
"It's not fair to ask them to read if they don't have anything to read," said Williams, who, with fellow members of Towson's Educators Club, was delivering 1,000 books to the formerly bookless library at Cross Country Elementary School in Northwest Baltimore.
Cross Country's library books had been destroyed by termites and water. Across town, Highlandtown Elementary No. 237 had no library at all. And last Christmas Eve, Sister Brenda Motte, a nun of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, described in this space the pitiful state of the library at her neighborhood public school, Johnston Square Elementary.
The response to these plights has been astonishing. Something about books turns on the philanthropic spigots of people. Maybe it's the book's association with childhood. Maybe it's the book's smell and feel. Or maybe it's simply that people agree with Williams: Without books, there is no reading. Without reading, we are lost.
The books poured in. Individuals, clubs, bookstores and other businesses, neighborhood associations, banks and at least a dozen churches and synagogues participated. Windsor Knolls Middle School in Frederick County collected 6,300 books and trucked them to Highlandtown.
In a Christmas note to me, Sister Brenda estimated she had collected 20,000 books. "I received books from Maryland, Penn- sylvania, Texas and Florida," she wrote. "My sincere gratitude to the many generous, caring people who made this project such an extraordinary success. And now I rejoice that in Baltimore, 'The City That Reads,' we have books in some schools to assist in the effort of teaching children to read by age 9. Praise God!"
So successful have the book drives been that Highlandtown and Cross Country schools have too many books. Cross Country librarian Treva Bergeron is up to her hips in boxes of donations that have to be cataloged and shelved.
"It's a wonderful problem to have," said Bergeron, "but it is a
Highlandtown's books are stored at a nearby Methodist church, where volunteers are coming in Wednesday evenings to sort. Books that have found their way to the crowded, 72-year-old school are "received like presents," said fifth-grade teacher Patricia Jefferson. "You know, a lot of these kids don't have anything educational at home."
Highlandtown's next challenge is to find a place to put the books. "Anyone near the school who wants to donate a house, hey!" said Tana Paddock, a South East Community Organization organizer who helped with the book campaign.
The drive to improve the city's public school libraries has spread beyond the schools mentioned. Sister Brenda's generosity has expanded to three inner-city schools near what she calls her "village," in the shadow of the Maryland State Penitentiary.
Baltimore Reads, the city's major literacy organization, is holding a book drive. Barnes & Noble Booksellers is helping schools get new books. Hands-On Baltimore, the city's "volunteer central," is about to announce a drive to collect 1,000 books for each of 25 elementary schools.
The state government is helping with a $400,000 "library enhancement" grant that the city must match without cutting back on library spending. Michael Pitroff, the school system's head of media and instructional technology, says much of the money will be used to place materials in the libraries to accompany the new citywide reading curriculum.
If the quality of city school libraries were measured on a scale of 1 to 10, the arrow moved up from 3 to 4 in 1998. That means there's a long way to go, but this progress follows years of decline. Ninety-seven schools lack official librarians. The number books for each student in a typical city school library remains less than half the state standard.
Almost all of the improvement is thanks to the generosity of individuals, organizations and businesses. Only one thing is wrong with the picture. Libraries are necessities. Generosity is wonderful, especially this time of year. But how long can Baltimore expect to carry a necessity on the back of philanthropy?
Pub Date: 12/27/98