Last year, 31 percent of the students at Fort Belvoir Elementary received free or reduced-price lunches, the nation’s standard indicator of poverty among schoolchildren. The school is part of the Fairfax County system, but it is located on Fort Belvoir Army base, and almost without exception the parents of its students are employed by the U.S. military.
Lori Monaco-Stevenson, the school’s librarian, explained that even for parents whose income from the Army brings them above the poverty level, the unique stresses of military service often create challenges associated with poverty, including high rates of mobility that force children to switch schools and disrupt their schoolwork and prolonged periods of single-parenthood when a spouse is serving over-seas.
“We have these soldiers going off to fight in Iraq while their kids at home may be at poverty level,” Stevenson said. Often spouses cope with these challenges by isolating themselves on the base. She described a former aide who refused to drive off Belvoir because she was intimidated by the world outside its walls. “It’s hard to go off-base and access different services for your kids and yourself.”
Faced with this situation, Monaco-Stevenson said she and colleagues in the base’s library, Van Noy, and the county’s closest library, the Kingstowne branch, asked themselves, “What can we do as librarians to help support [the Belvoir] community? And we came up with the idea of partnering together. All we could do is enhance and expand our services and offer that to the community at Fort Belvoir.”
“It’s very hard to take advantage of the opportunities that are offered by northern Virginia especially as a single parent with young children,” Monaco-Stevenson said. Belvoir Elementary’s principal, Jean Wilson, had already instituted Saturday enrichment activities designed to bring parents together, involve them in their children’s education and get them off the base once in a while on field trips to places like the Museum of the American Indian and the Baltimore Aquarium. But the school had recently lost federal poverty funding because of a recalibration of eligibility criteria, and activities had to be operated “on a shoestring.”
That changed earlier this month, when the Institute of Museum and Library Services, an independent federal agency, announced that Belvoir Elementary, Van Noy Library and Kingstowne Library had won a three-year, $250,000 grant to encourage literacy and use of library services, improve student achievement and increase participation in academic, social and cultural activities.
THE SCHOOL AND TWO LIBRARIES won the award because three librarians built a relationship with one another. Monaco-Stevenson said Rita Mayer, the former librarian in Kingstowne, had been trying to reach out to the Belvoir community, but her attempts were stymied at the base’s gates due to security precautions after Sept. 11. After Mayer got in touch with Monaco-Stevenson and Richard Freeman at Van Noy, they were able to help her get on. Soon the librarians were sharing books with one another for read-aloud programs, and they began to question why their communities couldn’t benefit from a similar collaboration.
“We obviously wanted to promote reading and literacy, that’s what librarians do, and we saw this grant and we said let’s go for it,” explained Monaco-Stevenson. “It started with an outreach between individuals.”
With the sudden windfall, the librarians envision classes for parents staged all over the base to teach reading strategies for pre-school children. They want to improve and expand the school’s Friday and Saturday night family enrichment sessions with crafts, workshops, author visits, reading clubs and, of course, more field trips.
Principal Wilson said that although the school’s huge population of 1,256 students has not been deemed poor enough to warrant federal funds, “we still have the responsibility for catching up the gaps and meeting our benchmarks. We had, clearly, the needs. And this grant gave us a wonderful opportunity to address the needs.” She said the intent of the activities is to “make this big school seem small, more like a typical neighborhood school.”
THE PARTNERS ARE STILL ADAPTING to the shift in fortunes. “It’s exciting, but it’s a little bit overwhelming right now,” Wilson said.
Besides implementing the three-year project, the coordinators must create a manual for replica projects across the country, said Monaco-Stevenson. “At the end of our three year grant we must have a playbook that other schools, other libraries, other Army bases in particular and other transient communities like migrant workers can use as a playbook for creating these partnerships within their communities.”
Kevin O’Connell, a spokesman for the Institute of Museum and Library Services, said the grant was awarded in part because it should ultimately help students around the country. He said the grants go to institutions seeking solutions “that serve a national priority and can be replicated nationally. They need to have a national benefit. This project, it’s hoped, will serve as a model for other military base schools.” He said there were 187 applicants for the grants and only 37 received them. The grants ranged from $50,000 to $1 million.
Fort Belvoir Elementary will hire a part-time coordinator to augment the five hours a week that each librarian pledged to devote to the project. Monaco-Stevenson said they hope to begin offering programs in November and December.