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Grant to help five Mount Airy schools with early literacy

Photo: Greg Windle

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Mount Airy Schools Coalition announced a new neighborhood-wide early literacy campaign last week, with the goal of having all students reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade.

The campaign, called Mount Airy Reads, is funded in large part by a $245,000 grant from the Lenfest Foundation. The money will provide five elementary schools — A.B. Day, Emlen, C.W. Henry, Houston, and Lingelbach — with books, professional development, and teacher coaching.

At a press conference held in the Lovett Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Abby Thaker, director of development and education partnerships for Mount Airy USA, said the goal is “to have a shared neighborhood-wide commitment” to the reading goal, which is central to the citywide READ! by 4th campaign. The coalition consists of several local organizations including Mount Airy USA, East/West Mount Airy Neighbors, the Children’s Literacy Initiative (CLI), and the Mount Airy/Chestnut Hill Teachers Fund.

Marjorie Neff, chair of the School Reform Commission and a Mount Airy resident, spoke at the event about the importance of community-based partnerships. She said this partnership was one of the first in the School District and “critically important to the schools in this area.”

Neff, whose sons graduated from city public schools, said this kind of work inspires her as an advocate, where “trying to move Harrisburg, and the City Council, we sometimes become weary. … The things that sustain us are the things that happen at the micro level that make a difference in individual schools.”

So far, neither the state legislature nor City Council has come up with funds that the District is requesting for next year — $100 million from the city and $200 million from Harrisburg. The Council has approved $70 million in new funds, but $25 million of that is still subject to unspecified conditions. A state budget is stalled in Harrisburg, with the Republican legislature rejecting Gov. Wolf’s plan to increase school spending by $400 million statewide, which would send about $159 million more to Philadelphia.

Houston Elementary Home and School president Carla Pagan said that much of the grant funding will pay for the schools to work with the Children’s Literacy Initiative, a Philadelphia-based organization that works nationally with teachers to create literacy-rich classrooms in the early grades.

Houston has already started working with CLI. Pagan said that CLI invited two parents who had success getting their children to read consistently over the summer to train other parents on “things that make reading interesting and exciting for kids.” Children also participated in the workshop, and they received free books at the end.

Pagan spoke of the “summer slide,” the documented phenomenon in which children who do not maintain reading habits over the summer lose the progress they’ve made.

Pagan said that summer slide is “the primary cause of the widening achievement gap in our schools. Children don’t catch up in the fall because other kids are moving ahead with their skills.”

Recognizing the severity of this issue, the White House recently suggested that students read five books every summer to avoid losing literacy skills.

In her speech, Thaker thanked CLI east regional manager Jill Valunas for her help. Valunas said CLI already has plans for all five schools to train teachers in best practices for literacy development and to do most of this through “embedded professional development,” meaning right in the classroom rather than through outside seminars or workshops.

Such training, she said, comes with significant material costs.

Valunas said professional development is important, but “what’s really true to my heart is making sure that we instill the love for reading and the love for books” in children.

The first of Mount Airy Reads programming to launch is the expansion of “Moonlight Movies in Mount Airy” to include a children’s book-club component. For the last three years, Moonlight Movies has featured screenings of films for families at the Trolley Car Diner and Lovett library each week. This summer, the program will feature films that are adaptations of popular children’s books.

The book club will hold story-hour readings of the corresponding books, and related arts and crafts activities, at local businesses. Participating businesses include: The Color Book Gallery, Queenie’s Pets, Mount Airy Read & Eat, Manh noodle house, Handcraft Workshop, and Malelani Café. The films and books range from picture books such as Where the Wild Things Are to novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird.

Another source of funding is the East Mount Airy Neighbors’ recently established Community Fund – a donor-advised fund of the Philadelphia Foundation. The fund was created with money earned from the sale of the EMAN Community Living Organization.

“One of our prime areas of interest is children in need,” said EMAN executive director Elayne Bender. “Another is building community. That’s why we were so pleased to give a grant of just under $13,000 to the Emlen school for early literacy programming.”

This was not the first time these organizations helped Emlen. Last summer the coalition raised $48,807 to purchase 33 new iMac computers for the school’s computer lab to replace Macs that were obsolete. Without functioning Adobe Flash software, the old computers were unable to run Lexia 5 – early literacy software developed to meet Common Core standards. For the first time, Emlen was able to fully implement the District’s technology curriculum.

It is this kind of work that Neff said is crucial to supporting public education. “It takes a long time, and a herculean effort to impact funding at the state level and at the local level,” said Neff of her own experience as a principal and SRC chair.

“We’re seeing groups supporting their neighborhood schools spring up all over the city, and it’s that kind of direct support that is going to help schools in ways we cannot as a large system,” she said.

In her speech, Neff quoted the educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune, who said “the whole world opened to me when I learned to read.” Neff’s voice wavered, and tears welled in her eyes. She paused for a moment. “I get emotional because I’m so excited for these schools. I also had the privilege of working with CLI when I was a principal of Powel Elementary School. It is such a high quality program."

Neff said that there is still plenty of work to do in Harrisburg, Washington and City Hall for adequate funding.

"But we also have the ability to make an impact now," she said, "and that’s why I think this is so important.”

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