Author visits cancelled with loss of Title I status

Hannah Bocian and Elie Salem

The PEN/Faulkner Foundation terminated their relationship with Wilson, ending a program that had sent authors to the Wilson library to give presentations regularly for years. The foundation ended the program because Wilson no longer qualified as a low-income school under the federal government’s criteria.

Before the organization ended their contract with Wilson, authors like “Secrets and Lies” author Ella Monroe, poet Derrick Weston Brown, and historical writer Louise Levathes would visit the school frequently to talk about literature and help students with creative writing. “There is nothing better to get a student excited about reading a book than for the author to read a part of that book and then talk about you know their experience developing the character,” Librarian Pamela Lipscomb-Gardner said.

When the PEN/Faulkner Foundation was founded in 1980 by National Book Award winner Mary Lee Settle, one of the main goals was to create a community of writers to honor literary excellence in the DC metropolitan area. The non-profit foundation helps encourage reading and writing throughout many DC public schools by bringing authors to speak at the schools for free.

Gardner said that when she called the foundation earlier this year to request an author to come for Teen Read Week, she was told that they would have to pay a minimum of $400 for the author and $12 for each book bought because Wilson no longer has Title I. While Title I is a federal government criteria that requires at least 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, PEN/Faulkner uses the same criteria to determine eligibility for free author visits.

Writers in Schools Director at the PEN/Faulkner Foundation Lacey Dunham explained that when working with schools, the association “prioritizes Title I schools in some of the poorest wards of the city for our author visits.”

In fact, Wilson hasn’t been a Title I school for many years. Gardner speculates that Dunham, who is new to the organization, decided to check Wilson’s Title I status, while previous Writers in Schools Directors had not.

The pricing will likely prove prohibitive, halting or severely reducing the flow of authors to Wilson. Natalie Ngan, the last author Gardner brought in, was not subsidized by either the school or the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and personally cost her $300; it is not something she can repeat.

Grants from the PTSO or Wilson administration to bring authors to Wilson are hard to write and difficult to get. Gardner says that since administration decided that she didn’t need an aide, who managed everyday issues like printing, she hasn’t had enough time to frequently fill out grant applications to pay for authors.

In the past few years before PEN/Faulkner terminated their contract with Wilson, the number of author visits gradually decreased. Five years ago authors came into Wilson every month, and a book club led by Gardner would read their book beforehand. Last year, only one author from the PEN/Faulkner Foundation came, and the year before, just three.

That’s not to say the visits weren’t popular. Teachers usually brought three to five classes to see an author at Wilson. A group of formerly incarcerated poets, for example, had hundreds of Wilson students attend their visit.

Gardner is working with the librarian at The School Without Walls, who is in a similar situation with PEN/Faulkner, to get a joint school author visit from a different organization for black history month.