Community effort brings Houston Elementary’s forgotten library back to life

When Reginald Johnson assumed his new role as principal of Henry H. Houston Elementary School this school year, he was shocked by the state of its library which, without a staff librarian, had been non-operational for the past two years.

“I never saw anything like it. I was saddened by the fact that this great school did not have a functioning library, which is a hub of learning,” said Johnson.

So, the new principal immediately began an ambitious project to transform the library into an instructional media center.

Library blight

Many of the books were literally in tatters, some even contaminated with rodent excrement. Nonfiction texts were outdated by decades.

Desktop computers? Non-existent. Forty functioning laptop computers, all more than five years old, are available to the school’s nearly 400 students for classroom use.

The first step was to purge the library of most of its holdings.

Johnson said he initially wanted to get rid of all of the books and start completely from scratch, but deferred to reading teachers and other volunteers to salvage what they deemed of continued educational value. 

A plan to rebuild was put in motion, spearheaded by Johnson and Jill Greenberg, a third-grade teacher at Houston.

Working with zero budget, community outreach was a must.

Johnson met with neighbors in early October and Greenberg — encouraged by former Germantown High School principal Margaret Mullen-Bavwidinsi, who actively volunteers at Houston — reached out to Dr. Jessica Kahn, of Chestnut Hill College’s Education Department.

A community comes together

Volunteers then mobilized to make the library’s transformation a reality, Greenberg said.

She credited Kahn as being instrumental in securing donations through college-wide book drives and connections with local libraries.

Neighborhood groups Mutual of Mt. Airy and the Mt. Airy-Nippon-Bryan-Cresheim Town Watch also held a book drive and have donated their time to help review, catalogue and reshelve incoming gently used books from the college and area schools including Germantown Academy, Springside Chestnut Hill and Abington Friends.

Next steps

The time-consuming process, in addition to cleaning and painting the library, are part of the initial phase of refurbishment.

Mutual of Mt. Airy volunteer Joan Farnsworth said there is still a tremendous need for age-appropriate reading materials for the school’s upper elementary students (sixth through eighth grade), especially in nonfiction. 

The next stage will be to identify technology grants and pilot programs for which Houston may be eligible, Johnson said.

The school’s students are currently operating at a disadvantage, explained Greenberg, as the children are expected to test on modern devices but lack the necessary experience.

The library is expected to be functional enough to re-open for teachers to bring in their classes by month’s end.

By the end of this school year, they hope to have all of the shelves stocked with books.

Johnson is also aiming to bring in six desktops for the future media center and a cart of 30 iPads for in-classroom use by the start of the 2014-15 school year.

Another goal for next year is to bring on a librarian, but Johnson admits it’s contingent on funding. In the meantime, the school will work to create a volunteer pool of retired librarians to fill the need.

The outpouring of support from community partners and stakeholders has been enormous, Johnson noted.

“This has been a remarkable journey,” he said.

Those wishing to donate their time or books can contact Joan Farnsworth at 267-254-2039 or Elayne Blender at 215-248-0413.

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