Leverage Point? A Foundation Sees School Libraries As a Key to Boosting Student Achievement

 photo:  Rawpixel.com/shutterstock

photo:  Rawpixel.com/shutterstock

We've been writing quite a bit lately about efforts to boost libraries. Funders like the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the Knight Foundation and Jim and Marilyn Simons envision libraries as open community spaces fostering inclusivity, collaboration and education.

The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation is another funder keenly interested in libraries, but its $30 million bet in this space is focused on school libraries—and is strikingly ambitious. 

Launched in 2011, the Baltimore Library Project is a unique public-private partnership with the aim of transforming inner city school libraries into "inspirational places in order to impact academic achievement." And by "transforming," I mean an actual physical transformation: Planners work with Baltimore City Public Schools to design, build, equip and staff new or renovated libraries in selected schools where existing public funds can be leveraged.

Weinberg, which has assets of over $2 billion and a big presence in Baltimore, has committed $10 million and has spent $6 million thus far in what's expected to be a legacy project.

The project is intriguing for its mechanics—which I'll get to momentarily—and more importantly, its claims and vision. With donors warming up to the potential of "next generation" libraries, I expect many to pay close attention to the Baltimore Library Project's model. But funders in the K-12 space may pay even closer attention. 

The Architecture of a Legacy Project

The project dates back to 2001 when Baltimore City Public Schools began applying for Qualified Zone Academy Bond funds to renovate the physical space at each location and ensure proper configuration, environmental abatement, quality air control, lighting, and flooring.

Fast-forward to the project's formative planning stages. Stakeholders received guidance from three initiatives that had already completed their own renovations: The L!brary Initiative, a partnership of the Robin Hood Foundation and the New York City Department of Education; the Capitol Hill Community Foundation, which led a public-private partnership with D.C. Public Schools; and the Baltimore Community Foundation’s Library Funds, which renovated three libraries in Baltimore City from 2001-2008.

The project's advisory committee includes Weinberg Foundation President and CEO Rachel Garbow Monroe as well as representatives from the Abell Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

And what about the Weinberg Foundation? What was it about the project that compelled it to dig deep and classify it as a legacy project?

Well, the project seamlessly aligns with its mission. The Owings Mills, Maryland-based foundation is committed to helping Baltimore's disadvantaged residents and students. It also likes building stuff. But behind this effort is a belief in the power of state-of-the-art school libraries to boost academic achievement.

The Benefits of "Strong School Libraries"

"The Weinberg Foundation and its partners hope that a fun, safe and enlightening space such as the libraries in this project will contribute to children’s love of books and will help them to develop critical reading and thinking skills," reads the foundation's website.

"Such belief stems from the findings of nationwide studies that show positive correlations between school libraries and academic achievement. Specifically, research has shown that students in schools with strong school libraries learn more, get better grades, and score higher on standardized test scores than their peers in schools without libraries.

"Further, studies have shown that a well-equipped, well-staffed, well-resourced library can override almost any negative impact poverty has on a student’s academic achievement." [emphasis added.]

Yes, you read that last point right. This is what Weinberg believes; and it's a key premise of the Library Project. 

The foundation contends further that while kids may be able to learn in dilapidated libraries, they'll do much better in "a well-designed, well-made, flexible and durable space that includes a vast array of new products and features."

These features include flexible book shelving, e-readers, computers and other technological instructional devices, the "Enoch Pratt Parent Place" for parents/guardians, informal reading areas, and separate areas for study and research, instruction and group discussion.

The Library Project will create as many as 24 of these spaces across Baltimore.

Bottom line? Weinberg is boldly drawing a $30 million straight line between capital improvements and a measurable return on student achievement. That's not a line we see K-12 funders drawing very often. 

A Changing Narrative

In a post from 2017, IP's L.S. Hall asked, "Why Aren't More Big Donors Giving to Public Libraries?" One theory is that libraries are perceived as public institutions that don't need private support. Another may be that the wealthy just don't make much use of libraries and don't develop loyalty to these institutions.

The fact that the Stavros Niarchos and JPB Foundation gifts came within the last four months suggests that the narrative may be changing. And why is that? I propose it's because the definition of a public and school library is changing.

As open and flexible community spaces, libraries are underleveraged resources where donors can promote their cherished goals of accessibility and equality. Weinberg's support for the Baltimore Library Project goes a step further, arguing—as noted earlier—that world-class school libraries can actually negate the impact poverty has on a student’s academic achievement. While that sounds highly implausible, the foundation is accumulating the data to prove it.

In January, the foundation completed an evaluation of the Baltimore Library Project, examining the first nine schools, which opened between 2011 and 2014. Commenting on the study's findings, Rachel Garbow Monroe said, through a press release, "The first three Library Project schools outperformed more than 120 Baltimore City Public Schools on PARCC tests measuring reading fluency. This confirms that the libraries are continuing to have a profound, positive impact on students."

We remain skeptical of such dramatic effects, but it's a tantalizing idea that other funders—keen to find discrete leverage points to move the needle on student achievement—will want to dig into. 

Meanwhile, in late October, the Baltimore Library Project celebrated its 14th new library in Baltimore City Public School system. The program now serves 6,000 students—or 10 percent of the total number of students, pre-kindergarten through grade eight.

This numbers will rise over time. Weinberg plans to spend the remaining $4 million of its $10 million investment, which it expects to be leveraged for a total investment of $30 million.