Thomas Johnson Elementary gets donation of 1,500 books in push to update obsolete library

Keeping up with tomes

December 21, 2007|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun reporter

The weathered, well-thumbed dictionary, its pages stained from decades of perusal, was so old that its definition for "computer" was "one who computes; a reckoner; a calculator." In 1956, when the Webster's edition was published, that made perfect sense.

But in the forlorn library at Thomas Johnson Elementary School in South Baltimore, the age of that obsolete book and hundreds like it are a pressing issue for teachers trying to instill in their young charges a sense of the world as it is now.

So the school's administrators happily accepted yesterday a donation of about 1,500 books, some as up-to-date as you can get, as well as about 50 pounds of art supplies, from a Girl Scouts troop and the Trudy and Joe Kaufman School Library Swap Foundation, set up a year ago by a Baltimore couple to help struggling public-school libraries.

"The ability of kids to read, and not having books to read, is wrong," said Joseph Kaufman, a retired commercial real estate broker who established the foundation with his wife after they spotted a sign at a Hunt Valley store seeking book donations for the school. This year, they have given about 3,000 books to Thomas Johnson and to the Brehms Lane and Waverly elementary schools.

As the boxes full of books and supplies were being unloaded in the school's assembly room, Kiya Brown, 7, said that books are important "because you can read them so you can learn the words you don't know."

Sitting next to her, Alpha Bah, who is also 7, said he has "about 60" books at home so that, from his point of view, the donation to the school was not such an urgent matter. "My brother helps me read them," Alpha said, referring to his 12-year-old sibling, Mamadou. "And he helps me do my homework on the computer."

With that nod to the Internet era, Alpha crystallized the challenge of teachers competing for the attention of youngsters who are drawn to video games and Web surfing rather than to the verses of A.A. Milne and Robert Frost. To make matters worse, at least at Thomas Johnson Elementary, is the lack of city funding for a librarian to manage the book collection, establish a lending system and update tomes.

"We haven't had a librarian here in seven or eight years," said Maria Zozulak, who oversees instructional support for Thomas Johnson's literacy programs. In fact, the school was in danger of closing two years ago, she said, and was saved by a concerted effort from residents of its neighborhood in Federal Hill.

"There's been a big change around here -- more mixed, less poor," said Zozulak, who estimated there were 400 students at the school, founded more than a century ago. "A lot of parents around here were blue-collar, working class -- firemen, policemen -- but it's more gentrified now. The local community is supporting us, so we have got to come through and give their children what they deserve."

In an illustration of the school's love of books, Thomas Johnson students' reading test scores in March this year were substantially higher -- in the case of its fifth graders, 34 percentage points higher -- than the city average.

Waving dismissively toward the aging books lining the library shelves, Zozulak said the school's rule of thumb is that "anything more than 10 years old is obsolete." Near her, a book had tumbled to the carpeted floor: It was Children of Russia, a volume of photographs with an introduction by Harrison E. Salisbury, who had served as a New York Times correspondent in Moscow after World War II. The book was printed in 1967.

"The encyclopedias are old, the reference books are old," said Zozulak, who is in her 37th year as an educator. "You're going to have problems with stereotypes, with currency of information, that sort of thing."

Of more immediate concern, according to one of the Girl Scouts who went to the school yesterday, was the fact that the library's index cards contain no reference to the Ravens and therefore, presumably, no books about the team, which was founded in 1996. When Ravens fan Kelsey Diven, 11, looked them up, the only local football players she found were the Baltimore Colts -- who bolted from the city in March 1984.

Kelsey, who is the Kaufmans' granddaughter, and two other members of Girl Scouts Troop 714 at Northfield Elementary School in Ellicott City, Maggie Loughlin and Natalie Johnson, both 10, were part of a team that in less than two weeks collected the 1,500 books delivered yesterday. Each teacher manages the collection of books of his or her classroom, and it is those mini-libraries, which cater to individual students' reading skills, that will benefit most, said Cory Zolnier, a second-grade teacher.

"Who's got muscle, who's got brains, and who loves to read?" principal, James R. Sasiadek, asked the crowded room as he sought volunteers to distribute the books. "These are just in time for the holidays, so you can take books home to read."

Among the choices in the new batch: Some Pig! a farmyard fable by E.B. White (HarperCollins, 2007); Waiting for Filippo, a pop-up book by Michael Bender about the Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi (Chronicle Books, 1995); and, appropriately, The Bear Who Wanted to Read, by Lee Davis (Family Learning, 1998).

"It's not a big deal," said Michael Singer, 8, nonchalantly, as he watched the proceedings. "I read when I first get home. I do my homework and I read. I've got a whole closet full of toys and books."

"Oh my gosh," responded Shayna Gurry, also 8, who said she has been reading since kindergarten. "My closet is full of clothes and shoes."

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