THE LAST TIME I LOOKED IN ON THE PEOPLE WITH THE WONDER OF Reading program, about 2 1/2 years ago, they'd pulled off minor miracles in 10 Los Angeles public elementary schools. It would not have surprised me, however, if they'd since lost faith, then lost steam, then sighed to a halt before the woes of public education in L.A.
Which is why it was so gratifying to attend a happy ceremony one recent morning in the courtyard of Clover Avenue School on the Westside.
The school's 504 kindergarten-through-fifth graders sat on small aluminum chairs whose feet were shod in split tennis balls to prevent scraping against the concrete. Parents, many holding infants, stood on the periphery. Sunlight rained through the branches of the ficus trees, and the children's chatter provided counterpoint to the jaunty tune being played by a solo fiddler at the podium. Then Principal Maureen Melvold spoke, enthusing over "just the most marvelous thing to happen to us in a very, very long time."
The occasion was the formal opening of the school's expanded, renovated, restocked library, the 45th that Wonder of Reading has delivered to the schoolkids of L.A.
Clover Avenue's old library was cramped and out-of-date, a showcase of the neglect Los Angeles has showered on its public-school students for a generation. "We had books where they were still hoping to visit the moon one day," says librarian Paulette Teach.
The new library is twice the size of the old one. It's an airy, inviting place, fragrant with a new carpet, new wooden bookshelves, new books. There are private nooks for tutoring and a carpeted amphitheater for storytelling and read-aloud sessions.
Wonder of Reading originated in 1992 at a Pacific Theaters Corp. retreat. Identifying community service as a fundamental company value, the participants, under CEO Christopher Forman, fixed on literacy as a priority, and from there on doing something about the city's school libraries.
With initial funding from the Forman family, Wonder of Reading was established as a nonprofit foundation. By now its formula is tried and true: Identify a worthy school; raise $20,000 from donors and require the school to raise another $20,000; spend three-fourths of the money on reconstructing the library and the remainder on new books; train community volunteers to work one-on-one with children who need reading help.
Clover Avenue raised its share from a single source, children's advocate Cheryl Saban and her husband, Hyman, who is CEO of Fox Family Entertainment. Wonder of Reading raised its share primarily from the Junior League of Los Angeles and Libbie Agran, owner of a financial services firm.
The state's long neglect of school libraries is a scandal. California is dead last among the states in the ratio of credentialed librarians to students; it has one librarian for every 5,036 students, more than five times worse than the national average of one to 953. Even the state's adult prison system does better, with one librarian to 4,283 inmates.
Until recently, the Los Angeles Unified School District did not provide funding for librarians in elementary schools. In 1997 the Board of Education promised to put one in each of the district's 420 elementary schools within five years. Alas, says Bonnie O'Brian, LAUSD director of library services, "the board that voted that through is no longer the board that's there, and the current board has not funded any of it."
At present, the district funds a library aide, who is seldom a credentialed librarian, for 15 hours a week in each elementary school. About a dozen elementary schools, Clover Avenue among them, fund additional librarian hours themselves.
As with school librarians, so with books. Not until two years ago did the state Legislature, for the first time, authorize ongoing funds for school library books. It designated $158.5 million a year, or about $28.50 per student.
Thanks to the state money, the number of library books per student in the LAUSD has crept from five a few years ago to a little more than seven. Statewide, it's 10.5. The national average is 18.
The Wonder of Reading libraries have shown that young children, though surrounded by an unprecedented din of electronic entertainment, still hunger for the quiet, world-expanding, creativity-engendering self-communication that comes with reading interesting books.
Unfortunately, that hunger can be starved out of them. "How can you say that today's kids prefer technology over reading when you offer them the very latest in technology but only the very ancient in reading?" asks O'Brian.
Many younger city kids have no realistic access to public libraries. School libraries are the only sanctuaries of reading they're likely to encounter. Such places, inviting and diligently maintained, are incubators for future discerning adults, not easily manipulated by media but attuned to the richness of their own existence.
By year's end, Wonder of Reading will have redone three more LAUSD elementary school libraries, for a total of 18 in 2000. Another 18 are on the books for next year.
After that, there will be only about 350 schools to go.
James Ricci's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org