The kindergarten students sat in rows on a rainbow-colored carpet and listened to a story during a visit to their new school library. Then they did a reading cheer — “Read, Baby, Read!” — before they got to go “shopping” for books.
Within a few minutes, the children at D.C. Prep Benning Public Charter School were lined up clutching books about Hot Wheels, princesses, pandas, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Curious George, Superman, and Pete the Cat, to name a few.
The students usually select books in their classrooms, going through shelves or bins that are organized by reading level. But the Ward 7 school added 5,000 new books in March by opening a D.C. Public Library branch inside the school.
“For many of them, seeing that many books in one space is really exciting,” said Emily Jeffries, a special education coordinator at the school who is helping oversee the new library.
The partnership is a pilot program designed to increase access to books for D.C. children. Charter schools are far less likely than traditional schools to have school libraries.
During the 2011-2012 school year, 49 percent of the nation’s public charter schools reported having a library media center, compared with 93 percent of traditional public schools, according to a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics. And just one-third of public charter schools had full-time, state-certified librarians, compared with two-thirds of traditional public schools.
A D.C. Public Charter School Board survey of District charter schools in 2014 showed similar results. Of the 100 campuses that responded, 43 had libraries outside of their classrooms. Many charter schools reported having “classroom libraries,” or smaller collections designed to support reading instruction.
School libraries play a different role, educators say, because they offer a far wider selection of books, encouraging students to explore their interests and read for pleasure.
Libraries are a consistent feature in traditional D.C. public schools, although staffing levels have fluctuated over time and collections have varied widely from school to school.
The District’s public school system has increased investments in its libraries in recent years and hired many new librarians. Next year, all but four schools are expected to have at least a part-time librarian on staff, said Jennifer Boudrye, the system’s director of library programs.
Charter schools, which are publicly funded and independently operated, have greater discretion over spending and often have difficulty finding adequate facilities.
“We always plan to have a library,” said Emily Lawson, founder and chief executive of D.C. Prep. “But first we need to get a permanent facility and then grow to a certain size.”
The first D.C. Prep school opened in a temporary location in 2003. It moved the next year to a former warehouse in Ward 5 and later opened an elementary school in another former warehouse down the street. Both Edgewood campuses have school libraries staffed by volunteers.
D.C. Prep’s Benning Elementary School campus opened in 2008 in a former D.C. public school building, and it was renovated last year. It had space for a library, but that space largely stored books for reading instruction, Lawson said.
When she heard that the city’s library system was looking for a charter school to host a branch library last summer, she volunteered for the pilot. “It helped us get a better library much faster,” she said.
It was an attractive deal for the school. D.C. Prep furnished the room and installed the shelves. D.C. Public Library provided the collection, about 5,000 children’s books, as well as the librarians. A children’s librarian from the Dorothy I. Height/Benning library and an intern staff the library two days a week.
Funding for the pilot came from a one-time supplement to D.C. Public Library’s collection budget at end of fiscal 2014, said George Williams, a spokesman for the public libraries. The budget for the new branch at DC Prep is $50,000, but only about half that amount has been spent, he said.
The pilot program is one of a few partnerships developing between the city’s public libraries and public schools.
School and library officials are working on a system to provide all D.C. public school students with a library card on their first day of school, said Richard Reyes-Gavilan, executive director of the D.C. Public Library.
The public libraries and D.C. Public Schools are launching a feasibility study to explore centralizing their online book catalogue, and the ordering, purchasing and delivering of new books and materials.
Two sets of city employees are doing similar jobs, Reyes-Gavilan said. He is interested in ways that the systems can share staffing and resources, including books.
He cited the “Limitless Libraries” program in Nashville as a possible model. There, student ID cards serve as library cards and students check out books from a shared catalogue and have them delivered at school.
D.C. Public Schools is interested in tapping a larger collection of books as it works to build up more equitable library collections across the system.
Historically, the school system did not fund library books annually, and schools relied on philanthropic support or parent donations to stock shelves. That yielded large collections in some schools and small, outdated collections in many others.
D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced in March that next year’s budget will include a per-student allocation for books ranging from $20 to $30, depending on a school’s population of students who are considered at risk because of poverty or other factors. The D.C. Public Education Fund is raising money to address the disparities.
Scott Pearson, executive director of the city’s charter board, said he hopes the partnership with the D.C. Public Library can expand so that more charter schools can host public libraries.
The public library system is surveying students at D.C. Prep about their reading habits and interest in reading before and after the opening of the branch library to see what impact it has.
“Meeting state benchmarks is a goal,” said Maura Englender, assistant principal of academics at D.C. Prep, referring to annual learning and testing goals. “But we want motivation around reading to be high.”
The school library seems to be helping with that, she said.
In the weeks since it opened, a library club has developed. A group of students come in every Tuesday at the end of the day to check out extra books. And lunchroom conversations often revolve around books, especially on days that the students visit the school library, she said.
One group of third-grade boys jockeys for the chance to check out books from the “Big Nate” series of children’s novels, based on a comic strip. They take turns and are often urging one another to hurry up so they can have their turn with the next book in the series.
“For that to happen with 8-year-old boys is so exciting,” Englender said.