Tackling a mountain of books with local hands

Connie Hoelscher moves books at School District headquarters. She is a volunteer and a librarian. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)

If someone had told me three months ago that the hundreds of thousands of books I saw sitting unused and going to waste in the basement of Philadelphia School District headquarters would by now be almost fully catalogued, ready to be shipped to the kids who need them, I probably wouldn't have believed it. I might have even laughed.

The task at hand seemed simple enough: There were a lot of unused books and a lot of kids who need books. Sort the books and give the kids any they could use. But in a drowning district, nothing's simple.

The fact that the books had piled up in the first place didn't inspire confidence. It would require a commonsense solution that cut through the bureaucracy.

The football field's worth of books had been collecting in the basement for a decade - a graveyard built from shuttered schools, poor past decisions, and bad leadership, and symbolic of the challenges facing a district slashed so close to the bone that even taking stock of its own resources seemed overwhelming.

The administrative building staff has been cut so badly in recent years, the place is a ghost town.

Plus, there were thousands more books and reading materials and even music instruments gathering dust at shuttered Bok High School in South Philadelphia - the unpicked remains, the district said, left over from two dozen school closings two years ago.

District officials were upfront with me about the books. They were on it, they said, but it could take time. There was talk of having a company from Georgia sort it all out.

I wasn't confident. But it's nice to be proven wrong.

On Thursday, I visited the School District basement after Ellen Scolnic, a writer from Wynnewood, told me about her day spent volunteering, sorting through the books. While there is still work to be done - and the need for more volunteers - the difference is night and day.

And it's the result of the district's making the smart move of scrapping the Georgia idea and accepting the offer of a local nonprofit organization that could more quickly - and cheaply - get the books back into the hands of city students.

"The key here is to keep these resources local and put them back to use," Fernando Gallard, the district spokesman, told me Thursday as a team of volunteers sorted and scanned books in the basement. "And we are doing all we can to do that."

Here's how it came about:

When David Brown read about the books in the basement, he thought, "We could help." Brown is the executive director of the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children, a nonprofit that works to reopen and restock school libraries that have been closed in West and Southwest Philadelphia.

His group works with the district often. He picked up the phone and called the district's office of strategic partnerships.

"I was kind of like, 'This is barn-raising time,' " Brown remembers. "We can get these books into hands of kids who don't have them. Let's figure it out."

And they did.

WePac relies mostly on volunteers. It could inventory the books for about $40,000 - the cost of paying its workers for the project. In all, the district's original plan to empty and clean out Bok was set to cost about $400,000, said Fran Burns, the district's chief operating officer. Now with WePac and the help of the volunteers, it will cost about half that, she said.

More important, WePac's partnerships with groups such as Philadelphia Reads and Books Through Bars would ensure that any books the district can't use will wind up in local hands.

"We can have those community members come in and say: 'OK, this book still has life. Let's see what we could do with it,' " Brown said.

Work got started in May. Things are moving quickly, said Kyla Jones, the literacy program director at WePac. They started at Bok, setting aside any books so outdated or damaged from water or paint chips that they had to be tossed. Everything salvageable was shipped to the basement to be scanned into an inventory system. Jones says workers had organized about 125,000 textbooks and 90,000 library books.

About 30 percent of those books will go to community groups, Burns said.

The district will keep any textbooks still in its curriculum and look to resell or recycle the rest. Teachers will be given an opportunity to take what they need.

WePac said it hopes to be finished by the end of this month. To get to the finish line, it needs more volunteers.

Anyone interested in helping should contact Jones through the WePac website: www.wepac.org.

For the next few weeks, WePac will be down in the basement working Monday through Friday, between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Hats off to them. And to the School District for finding a simple solution to a big challenge. For working to get this done.