By María Luisa Arroyo
“Literacy is not a luxury; it is a right and responsibility. If our world is to meet the challenge of the 21st century, we must harness the energy and creativity of all our citizens.” - President Bill Clinton, on International Literacy Day, September 8, 1994
Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to listen to the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) Commissioner Dr. Sherri Reneé Killins, a brilliant and passionate speaker, present the state’s commitment, vision, and actions for early childhood education. While she spoke, it was very easy to envision the role libraries already play in coordinating family-friendly programming for all ages in a safe environment and in providing easy access to books, magazines, computers, and other resources to support families in their children’s learning at home.
As part of my presentation of the Peck Full-Service Community School’s work with families to support literacy, I listed 28 culturally relevant bilingual (Spanish/English) books. These books – all borrowed from the Springfield City Library, Central Branch - were ones I had recently used during a bilingual family reading circle, which welcomed all family members in one unit – from abuela to bebé – to come together in order to read aloud, listen to and talk aloud about stories; and together, participate in creative activities such as making family trees, story lines, and treasure boxes. This approach, I must add, is partially informed by the vision and actions of James Lescault, former Director of the defunded EvenStart program.
Out of curiosity, I printed out the branch hours of all the Springfield libraries and the list of 10 level-4 underperforming schools in Springfield. While the Central branch is open 45 hours a week as of this writing, I am appalled to learn how few hours a week (on average 14 hours/week) the branch libraries are open, and, more specifically, how few of those hours are actually during after-school hours.
Let me cite one distressing example: Three of the 10 Springfield level-4 schools: Brightwood, Gerena (formerly New North), and Chestnut Accelerated are located in the predominantly Puerto Rican and Latino neighborhood in which I grew up. The Brightwood Branch library is open a total of 14 hours a week. While that may seem like a lot, only 6 of those hours are actually AFTER school, when children and families would actually be able to access them.
Why do branch libraries matter? Some may argue that, with the rise in technology and the use of cell phones and home computers as a means to get news and books, branch libraries are losing their relevance. Besides, who uses the library anyway nowadays? It just has old books, right?
Neither cell phones nor home computers, though, can teach young children how to hold a book upright, how to turn pages, nor choose for them age-appropriate books to read. Neither cell phones nor home computers can teach any child how to read aloud or check for understanding while reading, a tool that many teachers use and many parents, including myself, have learned how to do. Neither cell phones nor home computers can teach school-aged children the basic skill of finding a book in a library – a skill still needed to navigate bookstores and college libraries, even those with state-of-the-art technology. And finally, neither cell phones nor home computers can replace the joy of reading aloud together en familia as adults and children alike interrupt each other with excitement and recognition as they connect with what they’re reading.
In Springfield, where many of our students are struggling with literacy and attend neighborhood schools, isn’t it common sense to have the branch libraries in their neighborhoods open when they and their families need them? Here’s a personal example.
As a single mom, I work full-time and would prefer to visit my branch library in Upper Liberty Heights at my convenience in order to help my son gather resources for school projects and reports, to borrow books for my work to support family literacy, to foster my love of reading as a poet and educator, to browse through books that may inform my next community poetry workshop in the library, and, sometimes, to borrow a movie for family time. However, it’s only open a total of six hours a week during times we could actually use them. So, I must make a special trip to State Street on Saturdays in order to meet my professional and my own family’s needs if I cannot make the branch hours. Even though I own a computer with internet access and more than 1,000 books in my home library, I nevertheless need the library, both the one on State Street and my neighborhood branch.
With state-wide and local initiatives focusing on birth to 3rd grade as a crucial period for children to learn how to read for understanding and at a desired level, the mayoral candidate who will win my vote and the votes of community members who agree with me will be the person who supports and who guarantees family-friendly access to ALL neighborhood branch libraries.
North End native and Springfield resident educated in Springfield Public Schools and at Colby, Tufts, and Harvard, María Luisa Arroyo is an award-winning poet, educator, teaching artist and family literacy advocate. Currently, María Luisa enjoys working with families to support and engage them in their children’s learning at the Peck Full-Service Community School in Holyoke. firstname.lastname@example.org