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Cover Story: Making the library more meaningful

Fri, Jan 31, 2014

Double Your Dollars Campaign funds teacher homework program & more

Teacher in the Library homework session

Octavia Coleman goes over punctuation with Imani Brown during a Teacher in the Library homework session at the Avalon branch library.

Every Monday through Thursday at 3 p.m., Joseph Dummitt arrives at the McKinley Park branch of the Chicago Public Library and awaits students from nearby public and parochial schools who need his help with homework.

The students start arriving at 3:05 p.m., right after school. The Teacher in the Library program is built into their day because a lot of them have working parents who won’t be able to pick them up until the program ends at 6 p.m., Dummit said.

Even though the library branch at 1915 W. 35th St. has computers with programs such as Mindcraft, as well as board games, blocks and puzzles, the students do their homework first. They understand the need to schedule the major priority for their day, Dummit said. The McKinley Park branch is also a quiet place to work and to receive help.

“It’s a learning environment and I like to be the facilitator,” Dummit said. “In teaching kindergarten I learned simple guidelines. There are two rules: sit down and open up. Everybody’s got their book open and everybody’s sitting down. It’s very easy to follow with sitting down and opening up as a guiding principle.”

Over at the Rudy Lozano branch of the Chicago Public Library, 1805 S. Loomis, Victor Cordova’s Teacher in the Library students also know the routine. He asks them how their day was and has them get a drink of water. Then they begin their homework.

And at the Avalon Branch Library, 8148 S. Stony Island Ave., Octavia Coleman seats the youngest of her Teacher in the Library students closest to her as she prepares to circulate several tables in the branch’s general reading room.

Just off the Avalon branch circulation desk, CyberNavigator Star Bush is available to teach basic computer skills and typing, to help with online job applications, resumes and cover letters or to get City College of Chicago students into Blackboard, the program they need to access and post assignments.

Sometimes Bush, a Columbia College grad, helps grade school students with PowerPoint presentations or Google research. Other times she works one-on-one with people who have their own laptops. But just as often, neighborhood residents use the branch’s computers, which are limited to two 60-minute sessions per day.

According to a city study several years ago, 40 percent of low-income Chicagoans have no access to a computer other than at the public library, said Rhona Frazin, president and CEO of the Chicago Public Library (CPL) Foundation. Computers in the Harold Washington Library downtown and CPL’s 80 branches allow these people to research a medical diagnosis, or to sign up for Medicare and now the Affordable Care Act, she said.

“The library is one of the few institutions that serves all people: we’re free,” said Brian Bannon, Chicago Public Library Commissioner. “We serve everyone. We are open six days a week at all locations and at a few, seven. We are a safe place to learn, create and discover opportunities: a great book, a job, a service that would help you find shelter. We as librarians see such a broad range in demographics. The Chicago Public Library helps refer people for human services. It also helps people apply for jobs, find a great book or the opportunity to go to college. It runs the full gamut. The barrier to access is zero. We serve everyone throughout their lives and it’s all free.”

The Chicago Public Library has a public-private relationship with the CPL Foundation, Bannon said. The public library system has a roughly $100 million budget, which goes primarily toward staffing, buildings and books. The City of Chicago provided nearly $89 million revenue for the library system’s budget for the 2012 calendar year and the CPL Foundation added nearly $4.4 million, the latter privately funded from individual donors, corporate philanthropy and foundations. This money went to the CyberNavigators and Teacher in the Library programs, to YOUmedia and Teen Learning, to the summer reading program and Bookamania, which brought storytellers and children’s book authors to the Harold Washington Library November 23. The CPL Foundation also funds One Book, One Chicago. This fall, the program is engaging readers in Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” in which six million African-Americans left the South for new economic opportunities during the early 20th century.

Save Your Dollars

Victor Cordova watches Isabel Fernandez with one of her favorite books at the Lozano branch Teacher in the Library. The Fernandez family has been attending for two years and includes from the left, Sara, Lizbet, Eugenio and their mother, Francisca Fernandez

The CPL Foundation also funds supplies and marketing materials for these programs, as well as the giveaway

incentives for youths who complete the programs, Bannon said.

“There’s a clear understanding the City pays for facilities and upkeep, pays for staffing and pays for most of the collections development,” Frazin said. “That frees the foundation to work with private donors on programs and services that add value to the community, that aren’t essential to operate a library, but what make our library even more meaningful to all Chicagoans.” The CPL Foundation is a separate 501(c)(3) that operates and is officed independently of the library. By City ordinance, the CPL foundation is not expected to fund capital projects and staffing costs, and the City agrees not to reduce the Library’s budget to offset private fundraising success “That’s really important for donors to know; we don’t want them to feel that because they have written a check, the City is going to reduce the Library’s municipal funding,” Frazin said.

These distinctions are especially important through December 31 because of a $50,000 matching grant offered by the Chicago Sun-Times Foundation, a fund of the Chicago Community Trust. Through the end of 2013, the CPL Foundation will continue its Double Your Dollars campaign, where any gift will be matched, dollar-for-dollar, up to $1,000.

Double Your Dollars donations will not be going toward a deficit, Frazin said. The library and its foundation have a balanced budget.

But donations would help the foundation reach its goal of $5.6 million, to enhance programs that support kids and learning, such as Teachers in the Library and CyberNavigators, YOUmedia, and the Summer Learning Challenge. Additional objectives are to support City workforce development initiatives and to spread cultural literacies, as through the One Book, One Chicago program.

The Summer Learning Challenge program drew 71,260 kids, who read 2.1 million books over the 2013 three-month break from school. Over the last few years, this program has also encompassed basic literacy, creativity, critical thinking and digital communications, all intended to help students confidently return to school in the fall.

Rhona Frazin

Rhona Frazin, president and CEO of the Chicago Public Library Foundation, says that a Double Your Dollars campaign through Dec. 31

Teacher in the Library, meanwhile, provides paid certified personnel in 60 library branches (with volunteer programs in the remaining 19 branches) who provide homework help Monday through Thursday as well as Saturdays. The program helps bridge parents’ issues with language barriers or lack of educational attainment, Frazin said. Single moms, single dads or grandparents can feel safe leaving the kids at the library until they can pick them up after work, although it is not daycare. The program also helps families negotiate the school system.

“We’ve had teachers in the library who notice before a family member or even a teacher that this child might need glasses or a hearing aid because they are working with them one-on-one,” Frazin said.

English as a Second Language is one challenge he deals with as Teacher in the Library at McKinley Park, Dummitt said. “We have a couple who are really shy. I feel they are really trapped between two languages; their parents don’t teach their native language that well because they want them to learn English but they are naturally behind in English because they do not have immersion at home. This program helps fill it out in a social way because they are always around other students.”

Dummitt circulates among four tables with as many as 13 kids, coaching as needed and allowing older students to help younger ones. He previously taught high school Spanish in Memphis, English to 5th graders in Buenos Aires and kindergarten at a Chicago Public School on the southwest side.

“Joe is a very good teacher, he makes all the kids feel included,” said McKinley Park Branch Manager Sheryll Adams. “I’ve seen him delegate his time very carefully.”
Until Dummitt came five years ago, the students had pent-up energy from being in school all day, which even resulted in a firecracker in the library foyer once, Adams said.

“To have Joe come in and recognize all those kids had different needs and to get them focused, we couldn’t do it on our own, we didn’t have the staff to do it,” Adams said. “This way we can run the library and Joe can help with their homework. There’s been a great turnaround. They can have fun here. They can play games here, a certain kind of games. It’s structured.”

The branch is more like a family now, she said. Dummitt brought in organic plants for a “pizza” garden of organic tomatoes that were given away. And students take charge of bulletin boards themselves, said Sarah Holtkamp, children’s and young adult librarian. They come in on Mondays with snowflakes they made over the weekend.

Joseph Dummitt

Joesph Dummitt works one-on-one with a student at one of several tables at the McKinley Branch Library, 1915 W. 35th St.

Kevin Mei, 9, has been coming to the program for three years. He is a 4th grader at Mark Sheridan Math and Science Academy, 533 W. 27th St., where his brother, and his brother Kenny Mei, 7, is a 2nd grader.

“Mr. D is a nice teacher,” said their mother, Vivien Mei, who came from China in 1997. “If my sons have questions, Mr. D explains for them.”

Kenny said Mr. D helps him with his homework so that he gets everything correct: “I don’t have any Bs and Cs on my report card, only As.”

Kevin says it is easier to do homework at the library because Dummitt takes them step by step. “In school the teacher won’t give you the answer. She’ll just tell you how to do it but not show you what to do.”

Dummitt, meanwhile, says that he has seen Kevin’s language fluency grow in three years. At age 6 he once spent a whole day learning to say “multiplication.”

Math, then reading, science and social studies are the subjects Cordova sees kids needing help with most at the Lozano branch. Among several tables of students is the Fernandez family, which attends Manuel Perez School, 1241 W. 19th St. Their mom, Francisca, said that she welcomes the program because teaching methods today differ from when she was in school.

Eugenio, 12, a 7th grader, recalls how he learned to simplify fractions from Cordova. He said he most enjoys finishing his work and going to the YOUmedia program. Located in Harold Washington, Lozano and three other branches, YOUmedia provides access to not only video games but a recording studio and space to create 3-D objects.

Lizbet, 10, a 5th grader, said Cordova taught her about compatible numbers: how to round 1875 to 1900. Her best experience was when he got her started on her science fair project: melting an aspirin in warm, hot or cold water.

Sara, 9, a 4th grader, said Cordova made multiplication accessible to her by giving her a visual: scraps of paper she could group in various combinations. “Now I can get better grades. The two years he wasn’t here I couldn’t understand my homework.”

And preschooler Isabel, 4, has learned the alphabet, her colors and shapes, said her mother. Isabel breezes through a favorite book, “Pete the Cat: Rocking in My School Shoes,” by Eric Litwin. Like Isabel, Cordova was the youngest in his family and learned a second language from his siblings, he said.

Cordova is a product of nearby schools (Benito Juarez High School and the University of Illinois at Chicago) but he does not overstate his role. “I am reinforcement. The teachers are doing a good job but sometimes the kids have a busy day and I reinforce what they missed.”

The Avalon branch’s Coleman taught high school special education for 27 years and was a special ed administrator at an area office for nine years. Her task with Imani Brown, 6, a 1st grader at Amelia Earhart School, 1710 E. 93rd St., is to slow her down, get her to read directions. Brown was already reading last spring and she likes to figure things out for herself. She easily reads two excerpts on frogs and cat whiskers, but the assignment is to add proper punctuation.

“Have you heard of the water-holding frog?” reads the passage.

“What’s it doing? Is it telling or is it asking?” Coleman said.

“Asking,” Brown responded.

“What kind of punctuation goes there?” Coleman said right back.

“A question mark.”

“Read the next sentence,” Coleman said. “ ‘A fish takes in water through its gills.’

What do you think?”

“I say a period,” Brown responded.

“I say a period too,” Coleman said. “It’s just a statement. A lot of sentences are periods.”

Brown’s mother, Dorothy Clifford, said she was taking her daughter to the library last year and is already coaching her on multiplication tables. But she said that her daughter likes having a subject like punctuation broken down. “Mrs. Coleman knows exactly what she’s doing. It could be one thing, even making the question mark.

“She likes to sit up under Mrs. Coleman because Mrs. Coleman is sweet. Because Mrs. Coleman is a teacher she can get more feedback. Kids take it from someone else. I’m boring, I’m just Mom.”

Coleman, however, is nonchalant. She said that kids can be lost when they first approach an assignment. They may also need coaching in how to use resources such as a dictionary. And the reason kids need someone other than a parent for homework is detachment, she said.

“Because a parent is so into them, you don’t want to teach your own child how to drive,” Coleman said. “Everybody is emotional. The child is emotional and you definitely are emotional about the child. They need somebody other than someone they are close to.”

Story & Photos by Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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