Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Harlem School's Book Shortage Stirs Industry

When Phillip Lefevre, an English teacher at Harlem's Frederick Douglass Academy II, wanted his seventh graders to read Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street (Arte Publico Press, 1984), about a young girl growing up in the Latino section of Chicago, he faced one major hurdle: the school had no books.

A teacher in suburban Boston for the last 13 years, this was his first foray into the inner city teaching experience. "I expected the student body to be different, of course," he said. "I just was totally unprepared for how much less the district would actually provide."

FDA II, whose 420 students are predominantly black and Hispanic, opened its doors in September 2000, still has no library. What's more, the 115th St. New York Public Library branch across the street has been shut since 2002 because of budget cuts. In order for Lefevre to teach his 62 students a book recommended by the city school system, he had to look elsewhere.

Lefevre appealed to his friend Lee Isles, a data analyst at Barnes and, for help. Isles managed to get a discount on the books and set up a fundraising Web site to donate to the cost. Isles then sent the link to his old job site, All Media Guide in Ann Arbor, Mich. (a company that provides content data to online retailers), sparking former co-worker Matthew Tobey's interest. Tobey in turn told his friend writer Neal Pollack about it. Pollack, who said he feels strongly that "no one should be denied the opportunity to read books just because their school is under-funded," shot an e-mail over to Susan Bergholz, Cisneros's literary agent. Bergholz contacted Martin Asher, editor-in-chief of Vintage Books, and 10 copies of the book were sent directly.
But perhaps not fully satisfied with this Band-Aid solution, all the major players decided to go one step further. Bergholz is sending three books for every 20-odd authors she represents, as well as overstock and galleys to the school. Pollack posted a "call to arms" on his Web site, donated money from his own pocket and is currently in talks with Tobey and Isles about ways in which to continue raising money for such future efforts.

"I think the real issue here has to do with how the New York City school system spends its money," Isles said. "I have a hard time believing that every school has these same issues."
As of this date, $748 have been collected, an amount just $102 short of the required funds. Lefevre is planning to use any additional money raised to fund a Harlem Renaissance unit for his class, and said he's "incredibly amazed" by the feedback Isles has received. "You have to understand, these kids are not used to books they can take home," he added. "This is foreign to them."

Though grassroots efforts like ones initiated by Isles (he was also responsible for raising enough money last week to supply Lefevre's students with copies of The Old Man and the Sea) provide learning materials where federal, state and local governments fall short, they also hold greater promise. "It's like Latasha [Greer, the FDA II principal] said to me," Lefevre recounted. "This is how things get going. This is how movements begin."

To donate money, visit Isles's site. To donate books, clearly mark packages "book donations" and send to:

Frederick Douglass Academy II 215 W. 114th St. New York, N.Y. 10026

--Raya Kuzyk
PW Daily for Booksellers (Wednesday, November 3, 2004)

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