The Juvenile Justice Literacy Project 

Posted: April 19, 2017 in On Our Minds

As many of you know, my last day at the Juvenile Hall was in 2015. Yes, I miss the beloved children, AND… I’ve been lucky in my work to be on a school campus and to see kids I’ve known, give them a hug and hear about books they’ve read and what they’ve been doing.

I’ve taken a little break…. from reading, blogging and the rest, as I’ve been laying the groundwork at Oakland Unified School District to open libraries. More about that later. In the meantime I’ve been thinking about where I’ve been and where I’m going….

I’m passionate about opening up kids’ worlds through literacy and libraries. Throughout my career, I’ve worked with preschool to adult learners, often in communities where people actively hated or feared reading. I’ve attempted to establish relevant libraries all over Alameda County and create lifelong readers as a result.

During the years I worked with adult learners I consistently asked them what they identified as the root cause of their reading challenges. Every single person shared a story of a traumatic experience around books and reading. These negative experiences had one thing in common: they were at school.

National research continues to show that school libraries have a positive impact on student success, however California has occupied last place in every national metric that measures the health of school libraries. In 2014-15 California school districts employed only one teacher librarian for every 7,400 students, when the national average was one teacher librarian for every 1,100 students. California ranks 50th in terms of overall literacy development.

Over 50% of the children in the Alameda County Juvenile Hall are from Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) schools, where only 40 of the 88 schools have a school library, some with parttime staff. These youth in Juvenile Hall have difficulty navigating the public library system in terms of library cards, fines and access to relevant materials. What is the answer?

While at the Juvenile Hall I received many calls from teachers whose students had been released from Juvenile Hall and reentered their classroom as readers. I can honestly say that the culture of reading at the Hall was 99% positive when I left.  The library was a safe havens for exploration and a space for critical literacy.

Collection development is….well, everything. If the collection isn’t relevant, or if there are extraneous books on the shelves that aren’t relevant, or are dingy, or messed up, reading doesn’t happen, the culture doesn’t change. I did not accept donations,  or if I did it had to live up to my picky and high standards. I did not put a book on the shelf that someone might read. I only put books on the shelves that kids or a kid were reading or had read. The collection was so good that kids who were incarcerated for 2-3 and more years still found books on the shelves that they wanted to read. One of my greatest joys was a kid who had been there for 2 years or so and came to the library on fire, taking a stack of 10 books that he had never seen or wasn’t ready for before and now was. I know my students found books that reflected and enlivened their lives and that enabled their excitement about reading, sometimes for the first time in their lives. Meeting and having a dialogue with famous, not famous and local authors helped them to feel connected to the world of books and reading.

In answer to these calls from teachers, I was drawn to work as the District Librarian in the Oakland Unified School District. (I was also headhunted, and I have to say I appreciated that experience). I’m hoping I can have an impact on students before kids get incarcerated. In this way I can serve more students, those from K to 12. Utilizing the model  created at the Juvenile Hall, The Juvenile Justice Literacy Project ensures that teachers, librarians and families will have the information on how to develop relevant library collections for all ages, how to make them available and accessible on a daily basis, thus assisting all students to validate their lives and the lives of their families in the pages of a book.

Keep in touch, I’m working on it!

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