by Jennifer Katz
There is only one thing Dr. Jessica Kahn claims to know about children and books. If they don’t have books, they won’t read. It is a simple concept and hardly encompasses everything the Chestnut Hill College professor knows about children or books, but it is the reason she has spent countless hours working on a project she calls the “most important thing I’ve ever done in my career.”
For the past 12 months, Kahn has led the effort to collect thousands of books to create a library at the Emlen Elementary School in Mt. Airy at 6401 Chew Ave.
“Jessica is so passionate about reading,” said Emlen’s principal Richard Raisman. “No one is as passionate.”
Kahn and Raisman met through the professional development part of the college’s education program that brings Chestnut Hill College students to Emlen to read to the younger children who are just learning how to read.
Emlen, a Vanguard school (which means it makes more than adequate yearly progress according to federal guidelines), was without a library for many years when Raisman arrived five years ago.
“It made me crazy,” said Kahn. “I don’t know how you can have an elementary school without a library.”
In Philadelphia, 70 percent of the public elementary schools do not have libraries.
Raisman proposed the book collection as part of an MLK Day project. He had a room, he told Kahn, but no books.
Kahn began her career as an elementary school teacher in 1967 at Carver High School (now the High School for Engineering and Science) where she taught reading to students who were functioning below grade level. After raising her children she got her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and moved into college teaching. She has been at Chestnut Hill since 1992.
She begin acquiring books for Emlen by holding bake sales, using the proceeds to purchase age-appropriate materials. But that wasn’t going to equip a library, so she reached out the college community.
“Books started coming in from everywhere,” she said.
A little girl in Jenkintown made it her Communion project and collected 1,000 books. Another girl made it her Bat Mitzvah project and brought in another 1,000 books. An alumnus of the college heard a public service announcement on KYW and donated thousands more books.
Today, there are 7,100 cataloged books filling rows of donated bookcases in a basement room at Emlen. There are another 3,000 waiting for Kahn and her volunteers to catalog them.
And now there is another school, Fitler Academics Plus, in Germantown, that has a library and a librarian but not nearly enough books.
“In class, students read at their grade level, but the library gives them a chance to self-select books and maybe read books that are easier for them or that enjoy more,” Raisman said, explaining how the library helps promote and improve literacy among his students. “Now kids are talking about books, authors.
“The nicest thing is walking into the library and seeing children excited and smiling.”
Kahn is collecting new or gently used K-8 books for Fitler and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Kahn is also challenging every other college or university in the area to adopt a public school in need and collect books.
“It involves work but it doesn’t require $100,000 in grant money,” she said.