By Mike Murphy
Special to The Review
Hamtramck Public Schools Media Specialist Brad Alan Neff is hoping that a mini makeover set to take place at the Holbrook Elementary School Library will lead to a major makeover at the library by drawing the attention of grant-providers that focus on improving children’s reading skills.
Volunteers will repair books from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 16 at Holbrook Elementary Library, which Neff feels is an outstanding library in a library system he said is one of the best in the Detroit metropolitan area.
The Revue talked to Neff about the upcoming mini makeover, the library, and the ongoing need to improve the reading skills of many young students.
What do you hope to accomplish on the 16th and what kind of community
involvement are you looking for?
Neff: During the mini-makeover, we’ll be repairing books. Because many of our students are new to this country, there’s always a certain amount of damage, mostly torn pages that need to be repaired. Any adult can help. I’m hoping that we have a lot of adults helping on the sixteenth.
What makes the Hamtramck Schools’ library system the best library system in
the Greater Detroit area?
Neff: We have far more resources. At Holbrook alone, we should receive about two thousand brand new books soon. As non-profit schools, we place a much higher stress on free choice, full-book reading than many schools. I think that all of us contribute to this effort.
As reading is the cornerstone of educational success, I think reading is a part of all academic subjects.
Is this library only for the use of children who attend Holbrook Elementary or for other children, too?
Neff: As a public school district, our libraries are open for our students, of course. The only public school districts libraries open to everyone in the community are the combination libraries located in exceptionally rural areas. In such rural areas, there is not at all a separate community library. In Michigan, such libraries are rare, but they do exist.
What do you think you need to show/do in order to impress the folks who decide on the grants?
Neff: With the most historic elementary school in all of Michigan, I think Holbrook Elementary will receive additional grants in time. According to the National Register of Historic Places, no other elementary school has the history or record that Holbrook has. I think that when foundations know more about Holbrook Elementary, they may elect to help us to help our students. We have a lot of spectacular students who go to school in this school district.
Tell me a little bit more about the grants.
Neff: The Holbrook Library has already won two Laura Bush grants–and some smaller grants. Earlier this school year, we were told that we were on the list for a Piston’s Read to Achieve Library Makeover Grant for the 2011-2012 school year.
Now — because Karen Davidson is a minority owner and Tom Gores is the new majority owner — I think the program was placed on hold. I hope to see Karen Davidson, Ethan Davidson, or Tom Gores at the mini-makeover event on the 16th.
What is your connection to the library?
Neff: I’m the school media specialist for eight grades, grades one through eight. The first day I interviewed with the district, I visited the Holbrook Library to get a look at it. It was on that day that I fell in love with the historic Holbrook Library.
No matter how poor a community is, the students deserve quality libraries every bit as much as the students in richer communities do. I wish politicians would fund schools in a consistent, fair manner throughout Michigan.
Right now, some schools receive far more funding than other schools–almost twice as much.
Tell me about the Read to Achieve program if you can.
Neff: Each year, the community relations department for the Pistons Palace Entertainment Department has awarded makeover grants to schools. You can find a list of past winners — with photos — on the Piston’s website.
Sometimes they award $40,000–sometimes much more–to the school. Usually, they ask some of the star basketball players to come out and help with the painting. It’s a wonderful program!
What gets a child interested in reading? Interests? Teachers? Parents?
Neff: Children naturally love books, especially new books. It’s important that students know adults who love to read so that they get interested in reading. It’s also important that they are able to choose from a wide variety of books so that they get hooked on reading.
It’s the one skill that can turn them into a life-long reader. The Hamtramck Public Schools are working to create life-long learners, not just test-takers who quickly forget what they’ve learned after they take their tests.
Can a child be taught to read voraciously, or is that something that comes from within the child herself/himself? Parents?
Neff: The love of reading is usually taught. Sometimes it takes awhile though for this to happen, especially if the student cannot read in their native language. Availability of reading materials is a crucial part of this.
That is why the Hamtramck Public Schools have stressed reading. Without it a variety of reading programs, many students later drop out of school after high school because they cannot keep up with the coursework.
I’m interested in your statement, “Being able to read full books of personal interest … lowers dropout rates. Could you explain it more, and what do you mean by free-choice reading? I know it seems obvious, but I’m wondering if you could explain why free choice, instead of, say, assigned reading, improves reading skills.
Neff: Most of us came about our vocabularies by reading materials of interest to us. Free choice reading simply means that students have a good amount of choice in the selection of books.
Yes, teachers can use worksheets, or such, but few students fall in love with worksheets or boardwork.
Yes, teachers can use fragments of books in politically correct textbooks. Usually the selections are watered down, though, so that no one takes offense with the textbook. It’s rare that students fall in love with a textbook.
Yes, teachers can also assign books. This sometimes turns students off to reading instead of turning them on to reading, though.
I still remember one book by Faulkner assigned to a class when I was in school. It was As I Lay Dying but every student thought of it as As I Die Reading. It was a horrible experience. Although it did not turn me off to reading, sadly, it did turn off other students to reading.
Without strong reading skills, many students later find themselves in the prison population. The statistics on this are a national disgrace. Our politicians should be ashamed of themselves. Stressing tax cuts for the rich over schools for the poor is shortsighted.
All students need to fall in love with reading while in public school. There is a clear link between success in life and reading skills.