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Humboldt Park school celebrates new library, but many go without

Target CorporatiThe Heart AmericFoundativolunteers unveiled new library Daniel R. CamerElementary School Chicago.  AneysiBonner Cedric Smith prepare 32 iPads thschool

Target Corporation and The Heart of America Foundation and volunteers unveiled a new library at Daniel R. Cameron Elementary School in Chicago. Aneysia Bonner and Cedric Smith prepare 32 iPads that the school is receiving for the library. Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 6, 2014 6:08AM

A beautiful new library opened last week in Humboldt Park for the 800 students of Daniel R. Cameron Elementary School. Puffy pillows await children for story time; new chairs sit at brand new tables, and shelves of books line the long, light-filled room.

Quotes from children’s literature adorn the freshly painted walls. “Let the wild rumpus start!” reads one from Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.”

A very grateful Cameron community celebrated the opening with Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who praised the room as “absolutely amazing” and told children that libraries were her favorite place as a girl.

“You are fortunate now to have a library,” Byrd-Bennett said at Thursday’s festive ribbon-cutting. “We know you’re going to be successful because you have this precious resource.”

But still, 252 of the 527 Chicago Public Schools that are staffed by union teachers lack a librarian, and 18 more schools have just a part-time librarian, according to the Chicago Teachers Union. By CPS’ count of 658 schools, which includes charters, 517 schools have libraries, according to district spokesman Joel Hood, who did not provide a count of librarians.

CPS recently said it’ll spend up to $120 million in capital money over the next five years making sure every classroom has air conditioning, but the district “put no money in FY 15 directed specifically toward libraries,” Hood said.

Byrd-Bennett defended that choice in an emailed statement. The “majority of the District’s schools” have libraries already, she wrote in the email.

“CPS will continue to identify funding and form partnerships to provide children with libraries and other classroom resources that help prepare them for success in college, a career, and life,” she wrote.

Cameron lucked into the largess of Target, which chose the school as one of 10 nationwide that received a $200,000 library makeover grant this spring, and the eighth CPS school since the grant began in 2007.

Such big spending on books, furniture and iPads never would have been possible, said Principal Stephen Harden, who has been building a culture of literacy for his students and their families. He used money CPS gave him two years ago to fill its longer school day to hire a full-time librarian, and he made sure to hold onto her last year despite a budget dip.

“This should be a basic expectation for school kids. It does come down to priorities,” Harden said. “But we have not had enough funding to really invest in the library, and we never could have invested to this degree. We just have too many other needs.”

Cameron needs technology and extra help for children who need to catch up when they enter school below grade level, he said. The Humboldt Park school, 1234 N. Monticello, educates poor children. More than 98 percent of students are low-income, and a quarter are English-language learners.

“I want every kid at Cameron to know what they like to read, and to be just really engrossed in books full time,” Harden said. He and librarian Rhea Escudero made sure some of the 2,000 donated new books included lots of graphic novels, science, sports, nonfiction, and book that appeal to boys, to round out the school’s collection.

Escudero found “the saddest furniture I’ve ever seen,” when she landed at Cameron, with ripped-up chairs and tables with shaky legs she had to tighten. Books were in boxes or scattered throughout this building.

“This is just a whirlwind,” she said in her bright new workspace. “The kids really deserve a library like other schools, like suburban schools.”

So do children at Whittier Elementary School, 1900 W. 23rd, but they still don’t have a library either, said Susana Findley, one of the community members who fought to keep open the La Casita Community Center, which housed the school’s library on adjacent property. Thousands of donated books turned up at the school after the August 2013 demolition, but without a central repository, they were doled out to teachers, she said.

“Teachers have to fend for themselves, classroom by classroom, unfortunately,” Findley said. “It’s not a priority for the public schools.”


Twitter: @bylaurenfitz

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