Thursday, June 3, 2010

An Object Lesson in Literacy Education Part II - What NOT to do

My recent post of the open letter regarding school libraries and the serious lack of funding is the perfect jumping off point for my sad story of how NOT to build literacy in schools.

The week after the great Silver Birch festivities here in Ontario, I shlepped down to Southern California (and it was a shlep - drive to Buffalo, fly to Newark, then take a second plane to John Wayne airport) to speak at the Festival of Women Writers sponsored by the Orange County Literacy Guild (I'll tell you about my experiences at the festival in another post, but I can assure you right here it was awesome!)

My hosts, in addition to my festival appearances, had arranged for me to present at three area schools - two in Long Beach and one in Westminster  (That's Tincher Preparatory School in the picture).

I had been to several of Long Beach's schools back in October, when I had been in SoCal for the Children's Book Festival. I was shocked by what I saw at those schools.

Nina Wool, the librarian who kindly chauffeured me from school to school, was practically dead on her feet. With the Long Beach School District in terrible financial straits (like the rest of California, apparently), teaching staff had been cut to the bone. Nina had been given the responsibility for three elementary schools. Her task - to help kids learn to read and love reading, and to develop information literacy skills - had become practically impossible. Yet Nina, like so many of the school librarians I meet, had not given up. She was soldiering on, trying to make the best of a bad situation. Which was why she was expending energy and time on arranging and supervising all the author visits she could - e.g., bringing me in.

Long Beach has some seriously at-risk students. Many come from low-income families that speak no English. In the majority of the schools I visited, many, I was told, had almost no access to books, except those they could borrow from the school library. Their families didn't have the wherewithal or cash to get them to a public library or to buy them books of their own; as Nina pointed out, a large percentage of these kids - living in a coastal town called Long Beach, mind you - had never seen the ocean.

But alas. Alas. The school library's shelves, like Mother Hubbard's, were practically bare.

Here's what I found at Cesar Chavez Elementary, a brand-spanking new school (only 6 years old):

Nearly empty shelves. I can't think of a sadder sight.

And here's an image that brings it home for me. It's a closer peek at the shelf alotted to "scary stories." That's what the neat little label visible in the picture says.

There's not a single book on that whole shelf. Not one. Zero.

If that's not a scary story, I don't know what is.

Now no kid can learn to read if there are no books to read from (and don't think these children are bopping around town with iPads).

And don't think, either, that the poor little underprivileged children aren't really capable of reading, or of learning and loving books just as kids do in hoity-toity Orange County, across the county line. They can read just fine, thank you, when given the chance. And they want to read Percy Jackson and Twilight and Junie B.Jones just as much as kids in Laguna Beach or Brentwood do. But public schools in those places can raise about $400,000 a year from their students' families to keep popular books on the shelves. I'm not making that figure up - that's how much one Newport Beach public school took in last year.

Chavez's parents can't come up with private cash to fund their public school. But remind me, folks - wasn't the whole idea of public school that all kids could get a solid education, no matter who their parents were?

The day I presented at Chavez, Nina was handing out books to the grade one kids from the Reading is Fundamental program (Founded in 1966, RIF is the oldest and largest children's and family nonprofit literacy organization in the United States. RIF's highest priority is reaching underserved children from birth to age 8.).

When I left at the end of the day, I saw one of the boys who had received his free book walking home with his dad. He had the book open in front of him, and his nose was buried in it as he walked. It was a heartwarming sight to a kids' author like me. Or rather, it would have been heartwarming if my poor pump hadn't already broken.

What makes this sad situation  - gutted, non-functional libraries - so much worse is that it is repeated all over North America, in school after school after school. Despite the lip service given to "building literacy," barren, understaffed school libraries like those in Long Beach are becoming more and more common.


In part because of what appears to be to gross administrative incompetence. Long Beach is broke. Well no wonder, if you saw the unbelievable bureaucratic red tape they unwound to arrange for my visit.

I do hundreds of school visits. I'm at schools all over the place, and usually, in the immortal words of the Jackson Five, things go as easy as 1 2 3. I email or bring in an invoice, the teacher or school secretary hands me a check. Done.

But not Long Beach. I got at least ten calls (long distance, though I suppose it doesn't cost as much as it used to, but still --long distance!!!) from their contracts department. Then repeated emails. And then, I received a fat envelope from Long Beach containing a 9-page contract, in duplicate. A few weeks later, I got a second, identical package, this time for the second Long Beach school I'd been booked at. And then a third package, another 18 pages of paper, saying they had not yet received my reply to the first set of dopey documents.

I figure that contracts person must have spent 5 hours minimum on this file - for no purpose to my eye. Remember, most of my presentations require nothing but a single emailed invoice to get a check cut. But that's not how it's done at broke, broken Long Beach Unified School District.

I wish I kept their original envelopes so I could check how much they'd spent to get those fat envelopes to me. But even without the hard figures, I can tell you this: the postage alone could have put at least 3 books into one of Long Beach's libraries (As a point of reference, it cost me about $4 to mail the dopey signed contracts back, even after removing all the boilerplate junk they'd sent me).

The devil, they say, is in the details. If my pathetic tale is repeated over and over again, as I'm sure it is in Long Beach, think about how much money the district wastes a year.  Meanwhile, Chavez's shelves display nothing but dust, and the day I was there, 600 teachers were fighting the pink slips they'd received because the school district can no longer pay their salaries.

So that's my story of how not to build literacy.

But it's not the only story, nor the most important one. That story is a society that really doesn't give two hoots about any kids but their own, and one that doesn't really value books, education, or the people who love them.

Sad Story Addendum:

To date, I have not yet received my checks for my Long Beach presentations. I am certain they will come, in separate envelopes, and with lots of unnecessary stuff attached.

There's one bit of good news, although it's not much. There are now a few more books in Long Beach's school libraries --658, to be exact. That's because a few friends and I, with the assistance of Nina the librarian, did an ad hoc book drive and collected the books from Orange County and Camarillo families. Much thanks are due to Sherri and Juliana W., The H. family, and Louise, Shane and Dylan S.

I've enlisted a few more volunteers  to help expand the book drive next year.  With a little luck, we'll be able to get a few more books into the hands of kids who want to read, who deserve to have the chance to read, in a properly run school library.


  1. wow....thanks for this entry Helene....what a different perspective!

  2. Very saddened by this Helene! I do book reviews for Scholastic and other publishers. I usually donate them to my sons school and to friends when I am done reviewing them. If you would like I can keep them and when you do the drive next year I can send them over to you. just give me a shout at jennifer DOT rayment AT humber DOT ca

  3. Good on you, Helaine!! The logic of the school system and the multiple levels of "oversight" that control them simply beggars description! A school I was just at organized an in-house book exchange and the response was impressive. Everyone was working together to be sure students had what they needed to READ!

  4. Wow. Thanks for this post. It was very eye opening. I work more with struggling readers who need explicit reading strategies so it was very sad to see empty book shelves. Getting children excited to read is half the battle. I wish I still had my Goosebumps collection, then I could donate it to the "scary book" category.


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