Taking Advil to schools

Yankee outfielder Brett Gardner reads to kids at the re-opening of P.S. 130's library, funded by the Advil Congestion Relief Project. (Diane Bondareff/AP Images for Advil Congestion Relief)

These days, a village isn’t enough to raise a child. Multinational corporations have had to step in.

For six years, students at Longwood’s Abram Stevens Hewitt School didn’t have a functioning library. With the help of Advil, a Pfizer product, P.S. 130’s pre-K through fifth graders now have a newly renovated space, complete with new books, computers and iPads—as well as a new plaque that reads: “This Library Was Proudly Revitalized By: The Advil ® Congestion Relief Project.”

After the opening festivities, this plaque and Advil Congestion Relief notebooks are all that's left of the company's logo at P.S. 130. (Rani Molla/THE BRONX INK)

As schools nationwide watch budgets dwindle, for-profit companies have offered a hand. However, critics see gifts from these companies not as goodwill, but as a way of marketing to children.

School officials at P.S. 130 competed for and won the Advil grant, which was facilitated through The Fund For Public Schools, a nonprofit that works with the New York City Department of Education to find private funding for schools. It is part of a growing public school/private partnership initiative championed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It also highlights the need for schools to branch out into the private sector as government funding decreases.

No study tracks the amount for-profit companies invest in public schools because schools don’t necessarily have to go through a governing organization to receive these funds. But anecdotally, the practice is becoming more common, according to Faith Boninger, a research associate at the National Education Policy Center, a unit based in the University of Colorado at Boulder that examines research on public schools.

In a ribbon-cutting ceremony Nov. 22 that included giant Advil Congestion Relief scissors and a reading of a Hank Aaron biography by Yankee outfielder Brett Gardner, students viewed their newly renovated library for the first time.

What did they think?

“It’s good!” 5-year-old Angel shouted the following week, holding an Advil notebook and ducking behind his mother, Mayra Ocasio, outside the school.

Before the Advil grant,  the library consisted of a large room with only four computers. The checkout system involved writing students’ names and books on an index card, then crossing them off upon return. Many of the books were outdated, with non-fiction more than 10 years old. Science books still included the now-discredited planet Pluto and sports books heralded bygone heroes such as Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa.

After the renovation, the library boasts iPads, computers, a flat-screen TV for computer instruction, a high-tech image projector, new furniture, a computerized catalog system and illustrations inspired by famous kids’ books such as Where the Wild Things Are. Many more pictures illustrate the $20,000 worth of new books, from Dr. Seuss titles like Oh, The Places You’ll Go! for younger readers to the more adult Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney.

Principal Lourdes Velasquez had long wanted to fix the library, which had been without a regular library teacher since the last one retired six years ago.

“Literacy was something we needed to focus on wholeheartedly,” Velasquez said from the school’s bustling office. “The library was the central hub to spearheading that.”

P.S. 130's new library features new technology, artwork and $20,000 worth of new books. (Rani Molla/THE BRONX INK)

Last year Velasquez hired David Levin, a longtime teacher at the school, as the library teacher. At the time, the library was used mostly as a teacher center.

Velasquez and Levin believed an updated library would help meet the many challenges—from high-needs students to low test performance—of the South Bronx school, which is located in the poorest congressional district in America. They turned to the Department of Education, which connected them to nonprofit The Fund for Public Schools and in turn the Advil grant program.

Jennifer Kokell, a spokesperson for Pfizer, which manufactures Advil, said P.S. 130 was one of two initial projects for the Advil Congestion Relief Project, which is now accepting applications for another round of donations. The other recipient was the Chicago Department of Transportation, which received bike-lane-sized snow plows to alleviate traffic caused by winter snowstorms.

The Fund for Public Schools does not track partnerships between businesses and schools because many of those partnerships happen independent of the fund. Public Outreach Coordinator Kate Wagoner said corporations frequently partner with the city’s schools, citing Bank of America’s literacy initiative as an example.

But critics say corporate gifts are simply a way to market to kids who have no choice.

“We don’t market drugs to kids for good reason,” said Josh Golin, associate director of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. The packaging for Advil Congestion Relief says it’s not suitable for children under 12—every student at P.S. 130 is below that age. Golin’s organization blames childhood marketing for a slew of lifelong problems, from consumerism and conformity to eating disorders and sexualization to violence and moral debasement.

“We have a responsibility in society that these kids in the South Bronx have a library without being exposed to commercial messages,” Golin said.

Pfizer’s Kokell said the South Bronx and Chicago were picked for the project “because literal congestion is an obstacle both of these communities face.” Kokell did not multiple questions on whether the initiative in the Bronx is in any way a form of marketing.

At the opening ceremony, the Yankees’ Gardner stood in front of giant posters with a repeating Advil Congestion Relief logo. Students received yellow Advil notebooks and pencils to take home. Advil employees wearing bright yellow Advil Congestion Relief shirts stocked new books on shelves.

After the ceremony, all that remained of Advil was the plaque. But Boninger, whose research says marketing to children undermines their critical-thinking abilities, said even mentioning the brand is “still a form of marketing.”

Boninger said commercial messages are frequently directed at schools because the children are a “captive audience” in an environment they trust, meaning they are highly susceptible to marketing there.

P.S. 130 officials said the gift is worth it.

“Coming in for one day, to me, I think it’s reasonable,” Levin, the library teacher said, amid the shelves of new books and tables of new technology. “Considering the spirit of the donation—it’s tremendous, I can’t find any fault in it.”

The updated library, he said, is necessary to develop a more “organic” way to learn reading, in which kids see it as fun instead of a job.

“My goal is to turn books into candy,” Levin said. “It’s not a book, it’s candy.”

Principal Velasquez doesn’t think marketing was on Advil’s agenda either. “Their agenda was to support a school and bring it resources,” she said.

Parents also seemed happy with the arrangement.

Angel, 5, walks home from P.S. 130 with his mother Mayra Ocasio and his Advil Congestion Relief notebook. (Rani Molla/THE BRONX INK)

Daisy Campbell, mother of Davonte, a 4-year-old pre-K student, said the good outweighed the bad.

“They really don’t know what Advil is yet,” she said, pushing a stroller away from the P.S. 130 after school. “They just see that someone helped them out to get a better education.”

Raquel Chaparro conceded that her 7- and 8-year-old sons, both named Angel, would be “more likely to recognize Advil.” But for now, neither of them knew what Advil was.

All of the children interviewed had their Advil notebooks with them, nearly a week after they received them.

According to Boninger, the message such gifts give is obvious.

“Send a letter to the parents but stay away from kids,” she said. “When kids are involved, it’s clearly an attempt to influence them.”