Reading is fundamental. And studies show that by fourth grade, children who can't read at their grade level are at greater risk of dropping out of high school.

That's why the nonprofit West Philadelphia Alliance for Children, known as WePAC, is helping to reopen shuttered elementary school libraries.

Students at Andrew Hamilton School in West Philadelphia haven't had access to the school's library books for 10 years. Now, the K-8 elementary school's library is fully stocked and open once a week, thanks to WePAC volunteers.

The organization's executive director, David Brown, said focusing on kindergartners to third-graders is crucial for future learning.

"What we've found is that if kids are struggling when they're reading early, then they're not going to want to read later when they really need to be able to read," he said.

While it's mandatory that every state prison has a librarian within their libraries, Brown noted, it's not required in public schools.

Hamilton eighth-grader Nicole Harrington,  the student council president, said that over the years the library became "a messy place."

"Now that we have a new library and it's remodeled, we can continue to learn and read and share with each other," she said.

Nicole said she's looking forward to guiding the younger kids to the library "because reading is a really hard concept to grasp unless you learn it at the right age."

Connie Hoelscher, a retired librarian who has volunteered at 10 WePAC libraries, said the experience has been an enjoyable one.

"The kids get really excited about reading and get really excited about good books," she said. "So, it's fun."

Hoelscher, who selected and catalogued each of the 7,000 books now available at Hamilton's library, said she volunteers because "I'm a reader. And I think kids need to be readers."

Every week, 6,000 kids visit the 13 libraries WePAC has re-established at schools in Southwest and West Philadelphia, Brown said. Meanwhile, volunteers have helped keep other school libraries in the city running through years of budget cutbacks.

WePAC is part of "Read! by 4th," a citywide coalition to help kids read at grade level by fourth grade within the next five years.