The following is from the Autumn 2020 issue of Vision.
For over 50 years, Sr. Margaret Dennehy has been actively engaged in elementary education, and for the past 25 years she has been advocating for primary school libraries in New York City. A highlight of her recent involvement includes a unique partnership to enhance inner-city parochial and public school libraries with multiresource materials appealing to a diverse student population.
Sr. Margaret entered the Sisters of Charity of New York in 1958, earned a bachelor’s degree from the College of Mount Saint Vincent, and master’s degrees in Education from Hunter College, and in Library Science from St. John’s University.
Vision asked Sr. Margaret to share her journey of transition from the classroom to librarianship, the services provided to students resulting from the newly available resources, and her thoughts on the value of literacy.
Sr. Margaret Dennehy:
As a life-long learner, I’ve welcomed the challenges that accompany inner-city education, teaching grades 1, 2, 3, and 6 at St. Peter School, Yonkers, from 1961 to 1965; at Epiphany School, Manhattan, from 1965 to 1971; and at St. Brigid on the Lower East Side from 1971 to 1978. While I was teaching at Epiphany School during the late 1960s, with an energetic committee of parents, and with support from the school’s principal, we raised the funds to create a school library. After joining the staff at St. Brigid in 1978, my eventual move into librarianship was in great measure due to the exceptional leadership and commitment of the Sisters of Charity, working with the Lower East Side Hispanic community.
My arrival at St. Aloysius School in Central Harlem in 1995 was the beginning of a wonderful new chapter. With Jesuit support and the generosity of donors, three unique libraries for elementary students, middle school boys, and middle school girls were developed in separate locations. It was the fulfillment of the ideals and dreams of a visionary leader, lay principal Laurel Senger, and extraordinary colleagues at St. Aloysius School, following in the footsteps of the Franciscan Handmaids, the African-American order who founded the school in 1941.
The new libraries received an early infusion of materials and experiences to support the arts, particularly African-American contributions. The developing libraries were active participants in this ongoing process and priorities, including these incentives:
• Twelve years of involvement by faculty and leadership in “Library Connections.” This was a dynamic four-year program designed to revitalize inner-city elementary school libraries in the Archdiocese of New York through curriculum and classroom activities and collaboration among library, computer and classroom teachers. This program was funded by the Altman Foundation and the Patrons Program of the Archdiocese of New York.
• Library collection-building and sharing among 32 inner-city schools, while investing time and talent in creative curriculum initiatives. Collaboration among and across specialties and grade levels resulted as school-wide projects supported understanding and celebration of important themes.
• Meaningful engagement of contemporary authors in support of literacy initiatives included an ongoing relationship with renowned children’s and young adult author Walter Dean Myers and his son, Christopher, an author/illustrator.
• Longtime involvement with the NYC School Library System (NYCSLS), as a participant and Advisory Council member, provided a voice and presence for non-public school libraries. One of many enviable outcomes was the opportunity to curate and maintain a special collection of picture books to be shared widely through interlibrary loan. Ongoing professional conferences and workshops provided by NYCSLS enhanced appreciation of and involvement with the wider library world beyond.
• Development of a series of Parent Literacy Nights, with NYCSLS funding.
Those achievements were complemented by innovative approaches to teaching and learning, rooted in the context of an enriching and empowering cultural and historical African-American heritage. I was privileged to be part of living out that vision for 21 years. A bittersweet summary of and tribute to the unique contributions of St. Aloysius School for over 75 years was recorded in a June 2016 broadcast of a PBS MetroFocus segment. This was done as an unsuccessful struggle to prevent the school from closing was being waged. After the school closed, I spent several months dispersing the library’s resources to other schools.
Currently, as a member of the Sisters of Charity Creation’s Transformative Energy Committee, I periodically compile and update bibliographies of notable children’s books on ecological issues such as climate change and water. After all, the keyword that remains is “Connections” to nurture and encourage creative collaboration.
During the past two years, Mt. Carmel-Holy Rosary School (MCHR) had the opportunity to join an innovative pilot project, MyLibraryNYC, along with 600 or so libraries across the five boroughs. A unique relationship with NYPL offers a range of opportunities for teachers, librarians, students, and families to access an extraordinary collection of print and digital resources of over 10,000 teacher sets, deliverable via United Parcel Service. A designated Resource Librarian is available for on-site teacher and parent sessions, class visits, and special programs to enhance implementation of this program. When we are able to convene post-pandemic classes, I plan to seek funding for Parent Literacy Nights that will also offer refreshments, book giveaways and other incentives.
I have been gifted with generous and talented individuals, mentors and colleagues, enabling me to develop the skills, values and connections that I bring to my work today. As I continue library work at MCHR, my days include sharing stories with a new generation who continue to delight and surprise: when two third-grade boys organized a “book club” without adult involvement, they let me know, “You’re in!” And I’m in—all the way!
By Mindy Gordon