Underserved area ponders effect of Pratt closings

Half of city schools lack library

branches are `haven' for youth

April 24, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

While Lauren Iser, 13, waited for her mother to get minor shoulder surgery, she schooled the doctor on the chemicals detectives use at crime scenes. If it seems unusual for an eighth-grader to know such things, it is. Lauren learned about them from one of the many books she checks out from the library each week.

The budding scientist has an open book in front of her when she eats, when she watches television and before she falls asleep at night. Her favorites are stories about medical detectives.

"As you can see," she says narrowing her golden eyes, "I like the morbid."

Lauren lives in a Formstone rowhouse in Southwest Baltimore -- across the street from the Washington Village branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, one of the 11 branches in danger of being shut this summer because of a lack of money.

In Baltimore, where just half of schools offer library service and test scores show that students read far below grade level, children depend on their neighborhood libraries.

"Most of the kids in my class can barely read. A lot of them have a hard time with big words like `observe,'" said Lauren, whose school, Francis Scott Key Middle in Locust Point, has no library. "I feel lucky because a lot of parents don't feel like teaching their kids to read."

Lauren's mother, Tina Iser, taught her to read when she was 3, the same year she started bringing her to Pratt's Washington Village branch.

At a series of public forums that ended Thursday, residents have severely criticized library officials for proposing to shut down libraries in struggling neighborhoods, some of which also face school closings.

The focus of the arguments has been about protecting their children.

"This is not about the budget, this is about our children," said Norma C. Washington, a mother of three and Maryland chairwoman of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. "Let's be fair about this; you can't sacrifice our children for a dollar sign."

Several residents pointed out the irony that for 13 years, most city trucks and benches carried the motto "The City That Reads."

Library officials say they don't know which five branches will close, but Washington Village could be a candidate because it is the system's smallest branch and had the fewest number of books checked out in 2000. Circulation and branch size will help determine which branches close.

Library officials say they are taking into account which children in the city have access to books in schools and how those children perform on reading tests. But these are not among the main criteria.

At 13 of the 26 schools near the branches targeted to close, less than 15 percent of fifth-graders passed state reading tests last year.

Throughout the city, 19.9 percent of fifth-graders passed.

Activists say the poorly performing schools need the libraries, and the few schools that are doing well shouldn't have their library resources pulled away.

"If schools don't have adequate research and adequate materials, where are kids going to get knowledge? Where are they going to get the books?" said Kimberly Lane, development coordinator for Washington Village Pigtown Neighborhood Planning Council. "Closing libraries is like taking their educational tools away."

Pratt officials say they're dealing with a dwindling budget -- $5.1 million less than requested from the city over five years -- and have been cutting back on library service for years. The book budget was slashed 14 percent this year, and most branches open for only 37 hours a week.

Closing five branches could save $3.3 million in renovation costs, and $1.1 in operating costs a year, Pratt statistics indicate. The library's current budget is $27 million, 49 percent of which comes from the city.

"We want the best system with the budget realities we're facing," said Pratt Director Carla D. Hayden. "As a lifelong librarian, it breaks my heart to close branches."

Baltimore's library system announced plans in 1997 to move toward a system of a few mid-sized regional branches, and consolidate some of the smaller, older branches.

For Lauren, that means she could lose the privilege of walking to borrow books.

"I hope they don't close this one because we really need it," said Lauren, who as an 8-year-old taught older kids to read. "I would have to take two buses to the main branch, and I would only be able to go on weekends."

Last year, 12 percent of the eighth-graders in Lauren's school read at a satisfactory level, state tests results show. The school has no library, but Lauren is leading a student book drive to try to bring one to the school.

Michael Pitroff, the school system's director of instructional technology, library and media services, said that 91 of the city's 182 schools offer library service -- which includes a librarian or a teacher doubling as one -- and many school libraries fail to meet state standards.

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