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The School District puts $30 million to work boosting early childhood literacy

Big news for books in the School District of Philadelphia: $30 million in combined investments from the District and major foundations, announced this month, will spur a major literacy initiative for the city’s elementary schoolers. Plans are also afoot to put about 2,000 individual classroom libraries into Philly schools (about a million books in total).
It’s a three-year, three-pronged effort, funded in part by $4.5 million from The Lenfest Foundation and $6 million from the William Penn Foundation. The programs will focus on kids in kindergarten through third grade; it's part of District Superintendent Dr. William Hite’s longterm plan to boost early childhood literacy, a particular challenge for our city.
According to a statement from the District and the partnering foundations, Philly has 48,000 kids in kindergarten through third grade. Eight-five percent of them are members of low-income families, 14 percent have special education needs and 10 percent don’t speak English as their first language. A little over half of Philly's students can read at grade level by the end of third grade, an issue the District has already been tackling with its READ by 4th! Campaign (the new efforts will be an extension of this work).
According to William Penn Program Director Elliot Weinbaum, this investment has been in the pipeline for a while. The District had been working with the foundations for almost a year prior to the announcement; the foundations were impressed by the scope and specificity of the District's plans.
For the first part of the new initiative, 2,000 of Philly’s K-3 teachers (about 65 percent of them overall) will receive a week-long intensive summer training program on research-backed literacy instruction, institutionalizing new evidence-based approaches. Dedicated literacy coaches will support teachers throughout the school year.
Finally, the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia will spearhead a campaign for $3.4 million in matching funds from public donors over the next three years. The money will go towards customized in-classroom libraries.
"The classroom-based library is very much meant for the child to take agency over his or her learning," says Weinbaum. Students will be able to take volumes home with them for reading outside the classroom, and school staffers will help select the books, customizing the individual collections.

"It won’t be a one-size-fits-all library," adds Weinbaum. "We have a very diverse student body, both in terms of cultural and ethnic background," at a range of reading levels. Because of that diversity, the span of classroom interests and needs is "much broader than you would find in other schools and districts around the country. There’s plenty of research out there that shows when kids are interested in a topic, they are more likely to engage with the books."
Members of the public interested in supporting the libraries effort can call The Fund for the School District of Philadelphia at (215) 979-1199.
Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Elliot Weinbaum, The William Penn Foundation
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