When Widener University senior Melissa Damiani entered Stetser Elementary in August for the first day of an intensive, semester-long student-teaching program at the Chester school, the 22-year-old was shocked by what she saw.

Or, more accurately, what she didn’t see.

“When I walked in, they don’t have the supply closet,” said Damiani, who’d spent the summer working at a much-better-equipped middle school in New Jersey. “They don’t have a functional library. They don’t even have a separate cafeteria where they can make warm meals for these kids. I thought, something’s got to give.”

So, Damiani turned to social media and made a plea to family and friends for school supplies that quickly went viral. Companies like Scholastic — which donated 20 Yoobie boxes filled with pencils, glue and more — hopped on. Then came the books, as one area school after another held a donation drive, until more than 3,000 had been dropped off.

Little more than three months later, students at the elementary school in Delaware County’s most disadvantaged school district, Chester Upland, are enjoying Stetser’s first library in years – albeit a makeshift one comprising three overstuffed bookcases – with so many books floating around that each student crafted a box to take up to five books home. Other than Chester High, it’s the only school in the district with its own library.

The 300 pre-K through sixth graders have already proclaimed library day – when they line up at the bookshelves next to Stetser’s all-purpose room and pick out a new book to take home – as their favorite day of the week. At the end of the line, Jesdriel Dominques, 6, already had a book, Junie B. Jones, First Grader, and was reading while he walked. “I read it all by myself,” he said.

But the birth of the pop-up library at Stetser is more than just another viral success story. It’s also a high point for a unique effort — Widener’s Center for Education’s Community Engaged Teacher Education Program — that aims to give future teachers like Damiani a better understanding of challenges in urban education by immersing them in not just the school, but the broader community.

“You need to know your children — and where your children come from — in order to make a good relationship and select materials meaningful to them,” said Widener education professor Nadine McHenry, who has run the program since it was launched three years ago.

The Widener students who take part in the program don’t just spend time in a classroom, they also meet the kids’ families, attend cultural events, take their academic courses in a local church, and talk regularly with a council of 10 elders from Chester’s black community.

McHenry said the program seeks to change the perspective of middle-class students who go into urban environments and see only deficits, not the assets that exist.

That said, it was a deficit — the lack of books and other school supplies — that really jumped out at Damiani when she arrived at Stetser a week ahead of the first-grade class, in whose room she now spends 2½ hours a day as a student teacher.

“It was a really important thing for me, growing up, to go out and check out a book,” said Damiani, who is from Washington Township in South Jersey and is majoring in elementary and special education. “If we’re not having kids read ... their fluency and comprehension is not as good. Especially at a young age.”

The lack of basic supplies — with teachers often dipping into their own pockets to the tune of hundreds of dollars – is a long-running story in Chester Upland, which has struggled for more than a decade with large deficits, massive budget cuts, and shrinking enrollment that led to a state takeover of the district.

Educators at Stetser — which sits across East 17th Street from Widener’s Chester campus on property owned by the university — said libraries have disappeared from most schools as books grew old and outdated, and a series of building closures and consolidations put space at a premium.

Stetser’s principal, Janet Baldwin, said that when she arrived at the building nine years ago, the books were piled up in a room at the end of a hall, and then even that was dismantled for space reasons.

“When we were reorganizing the books, they were all 15 to 20 years old,” she recalled. “The fiction books were OK, but worn by then. Nonfiction were totally outdated.”

Joanne Ruiz, the teacher in the first-grade classroom where Damiani is assigned, said that in over 21 years she has taught in three Chester Upland public schools — and seen the library vanish from each.

“It’s very important,” Ruiz said of the library project, saying her students love “the excitement of going and selecting a book. They [Widener students] put together a variety of books, lots of genres.”

At the recent library day, kids lined up with books titled Lego, Curious George, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and more. Journe Young, 7, held ballerina Debbie Allen’s book, In the Wings. She said she would like to be a ballerina too someday.

First grader Journee Young, 7, and other students check out books at the new library at Stetser Elementary Tuesday December 11, 2018.
DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
First grader Journee Young, 7, and other students check out books at the new library at Stetser Elementary Tuesday December 11, 2018.

As the books piled up, Allison Reuter, another of the 17 Widener students in the program this semester, enlisted her dad to construct the three large bookshelves.

To Widener’s McHenry, building shelves isn’t as important as the long-range goals of building better ties between the university and Chester, and creating a new generation of teachers who understand the challenges of modern city schools.

“The takeaway,” she said, “is, if you make relationships with your students and find out what’s important to them, it may not be the same thing that is important to you — but you have to understand that.”