by Mia Valdez-Quellhorst, Director of Teacher Programs
Libraries are Magic
Do you remember your elementary school library? How about the librarian? I vividly remember when my school librarian, Mrs. Barclay, read The Legend of the Bluebonnets and told us that Tomie dePaola was her favorite author/illustrator. I came to school early for the next week, reading every Tomie dePaola book I could find and talking about them with Mrs. Jamsen. Through the expertise of my school librarian, a world of interesting children’s literature opened up for me and the library became a safe and caring space.
Rochelle Lee and the Power of a Good Book
While I was learning traditional Texan folk tales, Rochelle Lee was sharing the power of a good book with Chicago Public School children at Oscar Mayer Elementary. She was a teacher who spent the time to find a just-right book for a challenging student and who encouraged kids to read comic books and graphic novels before it was cool. She made the library into a welcoming, inviting place where students wanted to spend time exploring a good book. Ms. Lee knew that if she could instill a love of reading in her students, that drive would serve them throughout their lives.
Her commitment to empower students to becoming lifelong reader and learners had a ripple effect, impacting Mayer students and the larger community. Kids starting coming home excited to read, staying late to spend time in the library, and talking for weeks about upcoming book fairs. Parents took notice when their children came home excited to read. Soon, the Rochelle Lee Fund was created to provide teachers the money needed to put high-quality children’s literature in the hands of students.
Boundless Readers, WITS, and the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award
The Rochelle Lee Fund started in Ms. Lee’s living room, then spread to an office in Andersonville.
After Ms. Lee retired, the Fund began to diversify adding professional development for teachers to the mix. Under the new moniker of Boundless Readers, Rochelle Lee’s legacy lived on as teachers developed their literacy practices, earning money to purchase books for their school libraries. Ms. Lee and Boundless Readers were on to something big: since 2005, the Obamas personally donated $47,000 to the organization, empowering hundreds of teachers and putting a multitude of books in the hands of kids.
In 2015, WITS acquired Boundless Readers in a merger that increased the scope and capacity for both organizations. What started as one librarian impacting one school community, has now grown to be a part of the WITS movement, impacting more than 300 teachers in 92 schools, reaching over 5,000 CPS students. To honor Ms. Lee’s legacy, under the WITS umbrella, Boundless Readers became the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award, a professional development program where teachers qualify for Classroom Library Grants.
Good Books to Good Teachers
In today’s Chicago Public Schools, school librarians are a luxury most schools cannot afford. Since 2014, the number of full time librarians in CPS has declined from 454 to less than 140. The number of schools that provide quality library instruction is even lower. In an age where informational literacy is a needed skill in most job sectors, CPS is falling behind. This is where WITS comes in.
WITS’ volunteer-powered programs send home books to build student’s at-home library twice a year. In May 2019, WITS will send home 5,800 books. Through the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award and Classroom Library Grants, approximately 11,250 new, engaging books were added to classroom libraries. Thanks to WITS, there are students across Chicagoland who are learning the life-changing power of a good book. Rochelle Lee would be proud.
For more information on becoming a Rochelle Lee Teacher Awardee visit www.witschicago.org/teachers.