Corrections workers come to aid of ailing city school library 10,000 donated books give Johnston Square youngsters good start

July 12, 1998|By Paula Lavigne | Paula Lavigne,SUN STAFF

An elementary school was begging for library materials, and prison officials responded by -- what else? -- throwing the book at them.

Make that books. About 10,000 of them.

The beneficiary is Baltimore's Johnston Square Elementary School, whose barren library -- noted in a Christmas Eve Sun article about a neighborhood nun's efforts to help -- came to the attention of Maryland Division of Correction Commissioner Richard A. Lanham.

Lanham, in turn, asked the state's 7,500 corrections employees to donate books for elementary school children, starting the drive with about 20 books his grown sons used to read.

The resulting program, "Books Plus Children Equals a Successful Start in Life," far exceeded its 6,800-book goal, said Principal Colyn H. Harrington, who saw the library overflowing with more than 70 boxes and shopping bags of books, videos, posters and checks totaling $500.

"The librarian said that once the children saw all the books in the dTC library, she no longer had any trouble with any child acting out, acting up and acting silly," Harrington said. "All the children wanted to do was get to the books."

The 10,000 books from the Division of Correction and about 4,000 from other donors mean there are about 28 books for each of the nearly 500 students at Johnston Square -- a school that sits in the shadow of the prison complex east of downtown Baltimore.

"Now children can see why they are taught to read," the principal said.

Investing in future

Dennis Ferrell, the prison system's assistant director for religion and volunteer service, coordinated the book drive at correction facilities in Western Maryland, greater Baltimore and the Jessup area and on the Eastern Shore.

"This is an excellent example of where you teach kids to read and you might not have to deal with them in the future [as criminals]," he said, adding that most adult inmates dropped out of school before the 11th grade and have the literacy skills of a fifth-grader.

The Division of Correction gets few requests for community outreach, he said, so many of its employees took full advantage of the book drive -- and some even turned it into a competition.

Employees at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center -- better known as Supermax, the city prison housing the state's worst offenders -- donated 1,024 books, outdoing the 908 from the Metropolitan Transition Services Center.

"They were running back and forth from the bookstore trying to outdo each other," Ferrell said, laughing.

Legal secretary Tracey J. Stovall said she dug up five books she read when she was a child. Stovall spent about four hours cataloging donated books in early April and was one of many corrections staff members who helped get the books on the library shelves.

Workers who didn't have books in attics or basements found other ways to donate. Ralph Robinson, facility administrator at the Baltimore City Correction Center, said he donated about 150 books he bought at a Goodwill store on Belair Road.

Books by the bagful

"I had several shopping bags of books," he said. "I think that was the attitude throughout the division. People just wanted to do something for the kids."

Johnston Square had such an influx of books that Harrington said duplicate copies would be donated to other schools or lent to children to read over the summer.

She said Johnston Square's library was one of many in the school system that were near empty because of budget cuts. Commissioner Lanham said the Division of Correction may try similar programs for other schools.

"Reading is one of the major keys to life," he said. "If you don't get it in the beginning, it's difficult."

Pub Date: 7/12/98

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