On March 17, 2020, Ana Carolina Brito, less than a year into her tenure as principal of the Rafael Hernández K-8 Dual-Language School in Roxbury, got official word that the school needed to shut immediately as the COVID-19 outbreak began to spread across Massachusetts. Kids had to stay at home, and teachers needed to figure out a way to continue teaching them.
With just hours to go before shuttering their doors, Brito and her staff decided their students–over 70% of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch–could not be sent home empty handed. In the days before, school administrators had been conducting phone-tree surveys to understand what the kids did and did not have access to at home. Of the school’s 413 kids, 300 of them reported needing a computer.
“I just remember thinking, I don’t believe them that we’ll be back April 27 [the original date given that students would return to school],” explains Brito. “And I don’t know how we’ll move Chromebooks that fast. The gap meant that 300 kids would have a delayed start to remote learning.”
Brito says her gut told her they had to do something now. She decided to empty out the cabinets and give away everything left in the school’s storage–pens, pencils, markers, crayons, and even tape–to give the kids something to get them started. “Everything we owned we basically put into the care packages,” she says.
“We regret nothing in giving away our books, but find ourselves seriously challenged,” says principal Ana Carolina Brito.
Among the supplies that staff began dividing up into hundreds of bags organized by grade level across the dingy basement floor were the dual-language books owned by the school. At Hernández, 85% of students come from Spanish-speaking households and the dual-language collection was already thin. Now, the school’s book storage is completely empty–even still, the principal says she would do it all over again.
“We regret nothing in giving away our books, but find ourselves seriously challenged because Boston Public School’s funds were frozen in the Spring, and we do not have the funds to re-order essential materials,” says the principal.
Earlier this week, the Boston Book Festival announced that the Rafael Hernández School was one of just two recipients of its annual Shelf Help grant, which aims to help school libraries expand their collections of new, culturally relevant books. The grant, now in its fifth year, awards two schools in need with assistance in putting 50 brand-new books on school library shelves through donations by festival-goers and partners. It also harnesses BBF’s vast network of authors who come to the festival each year to bring a celebrated author to each of the winning schools.
As part of the Shelf Help award, Hernández students will be treated to a virtual visit by beloved children’s author Juana Medina, organized by local non-profit Wondermore.
This year, kids’ author and illustrator Juana Medina will visit the Hernández School–virtually, of course. The event will be organized by local nonprofit, Wondermore, which is dedicated to partnering with Boston-area schools to create memorable author visits. Medina is the author and illustrator of the Pura Belpré Award–winning chapter book Juana & Lucas, as well as Juana & Lucas: Big Problemas, 1 Big Salad, ABC Pasta, and Sweet Shapes. Her visit will coincide with her appearance at theBoston Book Festival 2020 Online, which will run from October 5–25.
“The author visits are a powerful part of the Shelf Help Program,” explains BBF’s executive director Norah Piehl. “The festival’s entire mission is to celebrate books and authors as a community, and we believe that is a unique experience that can inspire readers from a very young age. Plus, we’re just so excited to have Juana Medina, who, I think, will be an amazing fit for Hernández kids.”
For the book donations, the Hernández School has assembled a wish list that includes Angie Cruz’s Dominica and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, as well as many Spanish titles.
For the book donations, the Hernández School has assembled a wish list that includes Angie Cruz’s Dominica and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, as well as many Spanish titles–all books that Brito has chosen to connect with her kids and their own backgrounds, stories, and heritage. The Boston Book Festival and Wondermore donate a portion of the wish list books, but the grant relies on the generosity of the greater Boston community to fill Hernández school’s shelves.
One of the titles on the Hernández School’s wish list.
“Shelf Help is one of our favorite community programs,” says Piehl, “and we are just so motivated this year to ensure that when the Hernández kids come back to school—whenever that may be—that they have a whole new set of shiny books waiting for them.”
Books can be bought and donated directly from the Hernández School’s wish list here or by visiting BBF’s donate page. Upon checking out, select “Make this a gift” and designate “Shelf Help” as the gift recipient in the appropriate box. The English High School in Jamaica Plain is our other Shelf Help winner this year, and we’ll be posting more about its library soon. In the meantime, here is English’s book wish list.