Book Drive at Perry Traditional Academy Because #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Perry Traditional Academy


Perry Traditional Academy is the only high school on the North Side of Pittsburgh. The library staff and community supporters have set up a book drive through Amazon to bolster the school library. As I live on the North Side, it caught my attention so I interviewed Sheila, one of the librarians. I encourage you to visit the Amazon website and donate what you can.

I was very taken with how they integrated the youth into selecting books as well as how much care the staff invest into the lived experiences of the students.

1. Describe the condition of the current library at Perry. Please also tell me about Perry itself.

Not all kids have transportation or the ability to get to a public library after school. Walking around a neighborhood after dark may be dangerous, or family or job obligations may limit a kid’s free time. Their school library may be some kids’ only access to books. That makes what is on a school library’s shelves very important. Perry’s library is not in terrible shape, relatively speaking. It is a clean, large room with bright lighting. It has shelving and 11K+ books. The furniture is functional, although some of it is very much in need of repair.

99.7% of our fiction is 15 years old. Our Social Sciences collection is almost thirty years old. Our Literature collection– poetry, plays, etc., is mostly 43 years old. So, our collection is pretty elderly. That matters when kids look for information. Not all good books are online! And when a kid on the wrong side of the digital divide– that is, without internet or computer access at home– wants to do research or homework or just read nonfiction at home– they still need a print book.

When the section of your Library that covers countries, history, Pittsburgh, etc. is thirty years old, you will miss some things. The world has changed since the Reagan Administration. Countries have dissolved and been formed. Maps have been redrawn and the planets have changed. Librarians and schools do their best to keep collections up to date, but budgets are small and have to meet many needs. Expensive standardized test-prep books have to come out of the Library budget to help kids pass the SAT, PSAT, ASVAB, AP, etc. In a high school such as Perry, there are many special needs classrooms with differing reading levels, interests and curricular demands, let alone the regular classrooms in which there also exist all of these variables. The Library budget has to cover all of the needs of all of the kids, staff and curricula as best it can.

Perry High School merged with Oliver High School in 2012 because of low enrollment at Oliver. Perry has changed from a Traditional Academy, which was a magnet, to become a neighborhood school. Northview Heights, a government housing project, Brighton Heights, Perry Observatory Hill, Troy Hill and Manchester are some of the communities our children draw from. Perry is still a partial magnet with our Army JROTC, which is the only JROTC program available in the city. Perry is experiencing declining enrollment. 100% of Perry children receive free and reduced lunch. Our racial make up is 77% African American and 17% Caucasian.

2. What role does a school library play in the lives of the students?

The school library in some cases is the only place children will have access to books outside of class. Many homes do not contain books. Poor kids who begin school with a net loss in amount of words they know compared to their peers will continue to have a poorer vocabulary unless resources and interventions intercede. A richly resourced school library can be essential in that effort. Since our book drive began, our circulation has started to boom.

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3. How are school libraries funded in the Pittsburgh Public Schools?

I am not exactly sure– but I do believe that a certain amount of money is decided on either by Amy Filipowski, the Head of Library Services, or by the building Principal, or perhaps by both working together. That amount is budgeted for books and magazines for the Librarian in each building to spend. The Librarian’s job is to carefully and professionally match resources to needs in her building. She is the expert on who needs what in her school. If she doesn’t know her kids, her staff and her curricula, she is not in as strong a position to spend her budget.

4. You have set up a bookdrive via Amazon. Tell me about the genres and types of books you are seeking.

The books we have placed on the list have been chosen by staff and by the kids directly, working with the Librarian. The kids tell me what they want to read and I check to be sure what they want supports District policy. If it does, it goes on the list. The idea is that if kids have a say in what we put on the shelves, they will read more. It’s about empowering kids, but it is also about diversifying our shelves. Kids want materials that reflect their experiences or the experiences of kids they know. They want books about African Americans, Hispanics, kids in urban situations, they want anime, manga, nonfiction about football, wrestling, they want books about LGBTQA kids, they want books about pregnant kids. They want books that are timely and relevant to them. So, our book drive has taken on the mission of the national campaign #WENEEDDIVERSEBOOKS. We at Perry really do. We need books that reflect us. We can not, however, accept books that people just send us. We can only accept books that have been chosen through our professional Librarian and placed on the list. I have to ensure that each book supports District goals.

More information here:
5. Can people donate gently used books to this drive? Do you need other items for the library?

Not right now. But thank you.

People cannot donate gently used books to the drive because all materials need to be chosen by the Librarian to ensure they support District goals.

6. This is your second book drive. The first took place at a nearby elementary school. What is the status of the libraries at other North Side schools and other PPS schools?

I am unsure what the status is of the Manchester Miracle library. I have not been back, sadly. My friend Wallace Sapp, the unofficial grandfather of the school and a very important mentor there, and the teachers and children are the caretakers of that library now. This is not my second book drive, it’s about my fourth! I went on from Manchester to Carmalt, where I worked with an incredible teacher, Mr. Keith Harrison in the Baldwin School District. His twitter account is: @Harrison_BHS

He and his kids collected a zillion books because Carmalt’s library was in really bad shape. Carmalt was the library I was sent to after Manchester when I was subbing that year in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. We processed those books and got them on the shelves. That was great.

After Manchester’s book drive, and Carmalt’s, I worked with Tara McElfresh, a Linden parent and educational activist– part of Yinzercation– to build a children’s library for Vanessa German’s ArtHouse in Homewood. That was pretty awesome. So– yes, this is my fourth book drive. It feels like a very Pittsburghy thing to do– like Carnegie pushed building libraries out into the river water and now it’s just something we collectively all do. It must be said that without Jessie Ramey of Yinzercation and Kathleen Newman, none of these four efforts would have happened. Jessie has been an intrinsic part of each one. She has written blog articles, had Kathy Newman make memes, worked day and night to push out the message on Twitter and by word of mouth– all the things that people have to do behind the scenes to make something “magically” go viral. I’m hoping that this effort to get more diverse books– more updated urban, African American, LGBTQA, Hispanic, Asian, real books in North Side kids’ hands will start another viral revolution.

Why can’t the only North Side high school Library look and feel and be as great as the kids’ in Mount Lebanon, as Upper Saint Clair? Why can’t poor kids have facilities as cutting edge as kids who started school with every single advantage? The winning answer here is that time after time, I have found that Pittsburghers believe in fairness. Pittsburghers want the playing field to be level. They donate books, $10 at a time, to make that reality happen. I’m hoping that folks might consider donating a book. Since so many of the titles on the list relate to diversity, feature diverse kids or diverse authors or diverse situations kids live in, doing so supports diversity in kids’ publishing too. It sends a message to publishers, and to kids in the world generally: real kids, diverse kids, kids in foster homes, homeless kids, kids with mental illnesses, kids who are pregnant, queer, struggling, or who know kids who are: you are not alone. You matter. We see you. We support you. On the North Side, we are building a quiet, humane revolution through our school Library. We are reading about people and learning about people. That’s the way to peace and better citizenship. Thank you so much Sue!

To contribute to this book drive, please visit the online wish list at Amazon:



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