Adam Marcus and PS32 Elementary Raise $500K for Library
Photo by Joshua Kristal
For seven years, from 2002 to 2009, Carroll Gardens PS 32 Elementary School at Hoyt between Union and President did not have a library. It had a room that at one time functioned as a library. There was no card catalogue. Books were outdated. There was no librarian.
The school was pulling itself up, adding art, music and science rooms. The quality of the school’s programs was starting to attract kids from all over.
Principal Deborah Ann Florio decided PS 32 needed a proper library. Many studies show kids who attend schools with stocked and staffed libraries perform significantly better on standardized tests. Florio approached a charismatic teacher, Adam Marcus, and asked him to build a library for PS 32.
That was summer 2009. Marcus was hesitant (“I never wanted to be a librarian,” Marcus says.)
Less than two years later, Marcus and the PS 32 library advisory committee have raised more than $500,000, including grants and several private donations, to create the most darling, and possibly well-used, little library haven, a kids’ book mecca, a quiet place to read and relax, that one could imagine. The money raised includes $375,000 from Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, and a recent $50,000 Library Legacy Grant to build a computer lab.
Now many credit the library as the “heart” and the “center” of the school. Kids filter in and out all day and use the space as a safe haven, a place to read and work on projects.
“It was crazy,” Marcus says of the school’s seven-year stretch without a library. “Graduating fifth graders had never used a library before, they had never checked out a book; many of them don’t come from literary homes, they don’t have literary lives. They couldn’t tell me what book or author they liked. Now that’s changing.”
The school of 310 elementary students serves a high-needs and diverse population—80 percent receive free and reduced lunches, many come from the Gowanus Houses low-income apartments at Hoyt and Warren. Another 40 percent of kids at the school are special needs (the school pioneered the Autism Spectrum Disorder NEST program, a successful program for high-functioning autistic kids).
A group of volunteers worked hard to get the library and its books ready for use. In December 2009, the first book was checked out. Now, about 300 a week leave the library. Marcus used grants and special programs to triple the number of books on the shelves.
Marcus is on a mission to raise another $50,000 to keep the library open on days off and to run programs for parents and families. The grant money he’s raised so far is paying for a computer lab (Macs) and a construction project this summer that will add 600 square feet to the 800 square foot space.
I visited the librarian in his dominion one afternoon recently. Walking into Marcus’ library, from a bright and bustling school hallway, is like walking into a different world. Overstuffed chairs and couches create comfy sitting areas in half the space; little wood tables and chairs are organized on the other side. Dark shelves line the room. The lighting is golden from lamps placed here and there (“I never turn on the overhead lights,” Marcus says, “It’s about creating a comfortable atmosphere for reading.”) Nice cream shades are drawn. Plants add a nice effect. In the corner is a little coffee/tea nook with “organic and fair trade” offerings.
“I want to encourage the parents to come read with their kids. It’s like a lounge,” Marcus says.
It’s hard to get more than a few quiet minutes with Marcus before a string of kids filters in (“Hi Adam, Can I borrow one now? Please?” “Hey Adam, did you find that book I was looking for?” ”Can I keep this book another day?”)
He remembers each child’s name.
“Did you read them?” Marcus asks one boy. “Did you like them?” “How about Subway Ride, and Pokeman Adventure.”
He tries to match titles to kids’ interests, and enlists a “student library squad,” of 13 kids, whose job it is to help take care of the space.
Though he’s embraced his role, Marcus says he was hesitant at first.
“I never wanted to chase down kids for books. But I went to a professional development course, and it opened my eyes. Libraries aren’t just about books. They’re about teaching kids the skills they’ll use forever,” Marcus says. He recently enrolled in school to become a certified librarian.
Marcus puts out a list of kids who check out the most books. The top is Edwin, a fourth grader, who this year has checked out 72 titles.
“He’d never used a library before,” Marcus says of Edwin. “Now he loves to come!”
Marcus tells me about his library advisory committee, comprised of teachers, administrators and parents. Committee members help Marcus apply for grants and keep the library running. They held library fundraising concerts last summer, with bands and performers.
“We tried any way we could to get money,” he says.
The committee got a grant recently for a family reading night, to talk to parents about how to read to children.
The goal is to create a 21st Century library, Marcus says.
“We always need more funding, more volunteers,” Marcus says. “A lot of our kids come to school and they’ve never read books or been read to. It’s going to take a collective change.”
(Full disclosure: My child attends PS 32, and visits the library regularly with her pre-K class. She loves Marcus and the library and looks forward to her visit every week, and is proud of the books she brings home.)
Books: They teach us to read
The big picture
Are school libraries dead? With years of budget cuts at the city, state and federal level, and an increasing emphasis on reading via computer, instead of reading books, public school libraries long have been on the chopping block.
In NYC, functioning libraries are simply not a required element of an elementary school. Therefore, many elementary schools don’t have a library. The only money the state budgets for elementary school libraries is $6.25 per child for books. Middle and high schools are required to have a trained librarian on staff, but last month, the New York State Board of Regents discussed a proposal to eliminate the mandate for middle schools.
In February, President Obama proposed to chop “Improving Literacy Through School Libraries,” a decade-old program to provide library supplies to schools. (Bloomberg and Obama are also slashing funding for public libraries, but that’s a different story. We’re talking school libraries here).
Parents in several of the local schools, including PS 58 and PS 29, have in years past taken it upon themselves to raise money for books, computers and furniture and to staff the library themselves, navigating the obstacle course of city DOE bureaucracy. It’s not been so easy for schools with less parental involvement.
“New York City has been notorious in terms of its treatment of school libraries,” says New York Library Association Executive Director Michael Borges. “Libraries have to compete for limited space. When there’s a crunch for space, libraries are the first to go.
“It’s unfortunate because many kids, especially in high needs areas, the school libraries are their only access to books.”
Borges says 19 state studies show that kids do better on tests when they attend schools with libraries and librarians. Policy makers make sure to read to their children, but yet don’t make libraries a priority for all city kids, Borges says.
“It’s getting worse,” Borges says. “As funding issues come to the forefront, schools are looking to cut non-mandated programs. Unfortunately in Grades K through 6, school librarians are not required. Every school is required to have a library with a certain number of books, but in K through 6, they don’t have a librarian, so it defeats the purpose.
“You need to get a child hooked on reading as early as possible. A child that reads is a child that performs well. It’s not rocket science,” Borges says.
The state of affairs makes the success of PS 32’s library all the more remarkable.
It takes dedication. The library committee meets weekly.
Just last week, Marcus hosted a Dr. Seuss event, in the evening, after school, in which the mad cat himself showed up.
The library was packed.
You may have read the SBP recent stories about a proposal to move a charter middle school into PS 32. That proposal was abandoned due to loud protest. But the good news is, Carroll Gardens is getting a new middle school next year, that will eventually be a high school as well. Read all about it.
To take a video tour of PS 32’s library and/or to donate money to NYC Public School libraries, visit this site.