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Textbook availability shows dramatic improvement, problem spots

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For decades, taking textbooks home has not been an option at many Philadelphia high schools. Teachers distributed textbooks to students for in-class instruction but then collected them, protecting the books from students who might not return them if given the opportunity to take the texts home.

Students, parents, and educational advocates had railed against the practice, arguing that a ban on taking textbooks homes stifled the academic potential of students interested in poring over material at home, or learning lessons from texts at their own, individual pace.

But the $18.7 million purchase in 2003-04 of a quarter of a million new textbooks, followed last summer with an additional $10 million purchase of textbooks, was supposed to change that.

Aside from supporting the District’s new, standardized curriculum, the supply was designed to be large enough to allow each student his or her own book for personal study, and allow each teacher a set to maintain in-house for students to use during class.

“So that even if a child left his book at home, there’s a classroom set in every single room,” explained Creg Williams, the outgoing deputy chief academic officer for the District, who was recently named to head the St. Louis Public Schools.

Interviews indeed reveal that the effort has led to dramatically fewer complaints in high schools about student access to textbooks. But taking books home is still impossible in some instances – including social studies classes at Overbrook High School, where sources say hundreds of brand new textbooks have been sitting in storage since the fall.

In other cases, high school teachers say they’re awaiting supply orders, and until their arrival, they limit the textbooks on-hand to in-class use.

Restocking the high number of textbooks that students do not return is still a real problem that is the primary reason cited for insisting that students leave books at school.

“Our current problem is that we have had so few textbooks returned by students from the first semester, that we are suffering from a shortage for the second semester,” said a teacher at Germantown High School. “The principal has ordered more textbooks, but some students will be without during the wait time.”

‘Constant' complaints stemmed

Last year, in a survey by the student organizing group Youth United for Change (YUC), 68 percent of the surveyed students reported they were unable to take books home.

YUC officials said they had not explored the issue since the survey. But the executive director of another student organizing group, Philadelphia Student Union’s Eric Braxton, pointed to a steep drop in complaints, which had at one time been “constant.”

“It’s been less of a problem this year, because of new [books for the new] curriculum,” he said.

Eliminating the policy had been a goal for Williams, who said, “I pushed the initiative personally when I came to the District and I began to visit and assess the high schools.”

In 2003-04, the District ordered texts for Algebra I and English I, according to a District spokesman. This year, it followed with orders for English II, Geometry, Algebra II, World History, American History, Social Science, Physical Science, Biology, and Chemistry.

District officials said that in these subjects, enough books were ordered to provide each student with a book to take home.

Teachers confirmed strong implementation efforts.

“In September, it seemed like everyone was working together to make sure we had enough books,” the Germantown teacher noted. “Nancy Hopkins-Evans [director of high school curriculum] e-mailed us with the number of books sent and asked what our needs still were."

“We had enough for class sets of core curriculum, plus enough books for the students to take home,” the teacher added.

A West Philadelphia High School teacher reported, “The original shipments were too small, but by October, we had it.”

A teacher at another high school reported, “In English, each class has one set of hardback books. The students were given the soft cover books to use at home.” At that school, another teacher confirmed having sets of geometry books for students to use in-class as well as to take home. But an algebra teacher reported having only one set of books -- reserved for classroom use.

The District in some situations negotiated with textbook providers to supply classroom sets. The Germantown teacher noted that when her school formed a new class in September and requested a classroom set, textbook supplier Key Curriculum Press “right away” responded with a set of Discovering Geometry.

Stored away at Overbrook

 

Williams said the District had investigated and addressed book-access issues at a few schools at the beginning of the school year.

“We were very aggressive about it,” he stressed. “And I even put my email out there to tell students if you don’t have [books], e-mail me so we can investigate it. . . . So when I hear about them, it gives me the authority to go in say, ‘Why are they saying this? I know that I ordered them. I know they were shipped. Now where are they?’ ”

One District staffer said Overbrook had complained about not having enough books, especially in social science, to distribute to all students to take home. However, the District employee and a teacher at Overbrook questioned whether supply problems actually account for the limited distribution.

Calls to Overbrook principal Ethelyn Payne Young were not returned.

District spokesperson Joseph Lyons said an investigation of such a matter would have to follow the filing of a complaint from a student or parent, by calling the District’s Book Hotline (800-447-1169).

Meanwhile, many school staff maintain their argument that adequate supplies of textbooks remain a struggle, despite the best of District intentions, the aggressiveness of District directives, and even the unprecedented investment in materials in recent years.

“The books are very expensive; some students come and go from the comprehensive high schools and quite a few books get lost,” one teacher said. “Although I do believe students should have books to take home, the folks downtown who make the decisions and pronouncements are not always cognizant of the issues that face us in schools in their efforts to make the curriculum and books available to all students.”

For example, a single classroom set of textbooks is not enough for teachers who move from room to room.

A veteran staffer at a local college preparatory program, who encourages her students to demand their own individual textbooks, sympathized with schools’ budgeting issues.

New books can cost as much as $80 each, she noted. And at schools where the textbook loss rate can number as high as 100 per year, $8,000 in replacement books is not in the budget for some schools.

According to District spokesman Lyons, “Purchasing student take-home texts for all other courses (than the core subjects indicated earlier) and for replacement texts would still be a principal’s decision.”

Sometimes the priority placed on the book purchasing comes under fire.

“Personally, I think the money could be better spent than on all the textbooks,” offered one District employee. “But I know that is what teachers, often parents and sometimes students expect.”

A number of high school seniors might feel disappointed about their social science textbook, according to a source. Due to a purchase error, the book purchased was one published for middle school students.

Finally, one teacher admitted, “The books are big and heavy and students are not always willing to carry them to and fro.”

And that complaint, too has reached District offices.

“I had one official complaint from a parent this year, that the child had too many textbooks, and they were too heavy.” Williams had said. “And I said, ‘Look that’s a good complaint. I want to hear more of those.’ ”

Contact Notebook staff writer Sheila Simmons at 215-951-0330 x156 or sheilas@thenotebook.org.

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