The School District of Philadelphia is one of the largest school districts in the country, yet only a small portion of schools have libraries and certified school librarians. The reality is that as the state lowers Philadelphia school budgets and funding, schools are just not able to provide libraries with proper librarians for students.
The school district had 176 certified school librarians in 1991, but that number is in the single digits today. "That has to be the worst nationally. It's really appalling," said school-library expert and Antioch University Seattle instructor Debra Kachel. According to the Pennsylvania Association of School Librarians, Philadelphia has the most inadequate ratio of school librarians in the country, where out of over 200 schools, only six of them have certified librarians. With the worst ratio in the nation, finding a library in a district school is like finding a needle in a haystack.
Many students in the district feel that the lack of libraries in schools is saddening. “It’s not fair that all these schools outside the district in the suburbs have libraries and proper school funding when so many schools in Philadelphia don’t,” stated a sophomore at George Washington High School who wanted to remain anonymous. “Philadelphia students deserve better.”
Meanwhile, Central High School was able to renovate its now thriving library with a full-time librarian in 2005 due to a $4.5 million donation from the alumni association. Penn Alexander, a neighborhood elementary school that is supported by the University of Pennsylvania, also has a flourishing library with a certified librarian. Both Central and Julia R. Masterman High School’s libraries were closed for some time due to district budget cuts, but opened back up because of a $205,000 donation from an unknown donor in 2013.
“It is deeply disturbing that the school’s in Philadelphia with libraries are only alive because of outside donations, which most schools don’t have access to that kind of money,” says Shana Li, a parent of a sophomore at Central High School. “The school budgets and district funding simply aren’t enough.”
In fact, some teachers have resorted to creating their own libraries within their schools due to schools’ budgets not being able to accommodate such necessities. At Building 21, English teacher Eric Hitchner brought books from a book bank to his classroom for his students. “The possibility of choosing books, taking them home, shifted things for the kids,” says Hitchner. “I thought, ‘We need more than just a bookshelf in a classroom.’”
Thus, with no budget or librarian, Building 21’s homemade library was born. It is made up entirely of about 3,000 donated or cheaply purchased books and is short of the resources better-funded libraries have, yet, it feels like a gem to the school community. Hitchner said, “You get good vibes walking in, and that’s what a library should be.” Simone Burrell, a graduate of Building 21, said “I feel like it sparks an interest of wanting to read.”
Research shows that students with access to school libraries and certified librarians perform better academically and have higher test scores compared to students without these resources regardless of their socioeconomic status. Libraries also provide students with more book exposure and help develop an interest in reading.
It is clear that parents, students, and teachers are all concerned with the scarcity of school libraries throughout the city, and the district should be doing more to ensure schools have the funding for libraries. They are vital for students and their education.