January 15 — 4:53 pm, 2019

Opinion: All schools and all students need libraries

Dignitaries gathered recently to celebrate a community campaign that opened a long-shuttered school library. What does that say about our priorities and commitment to equity?

Lisa Haver and Deborah Grill

Children at the ceremonial opening of Bache-Martin's new library. Photo from the website of the Bache-Martin Home and School Association

The opening of a new library this month at Bache-Martin Elementary in Fairmount has been reported as a feel-good story – one about a community pulling together to fund and build something that most students in Philadelphia haven’t seen in years. The occasion was considered so momentous that Mayor Kenney, City Council President Darrell Clarke, and U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans were there to celebrate what the Inquirer headline proclaimed to be a “miracle.”

But there is nothing miraculous about communities having to fend for themselves in providing the necessary resources for Philadelphia students. A true miracle would be the District making a commitment to bringing back libraries and librarians in all schools.

A “Hunger Games” mentality has seeped into our collective consciousness.  Teachers create GoFundMe accounts for supplies and school trips. Elementary students write letters to local politicians to plead for new playground equipment. High school seniors reach out to community donors to put books and furniture in an underused classroom to create a school library.

Movie and sports stars select schools to receive new playgrounds, local politicians and District officials show up for the ribbon-cutting, and the news stories celebrate yet another charitable event, as we witness the continual underfunding of the city’s public schools.  

Equity is a stated goal of Superintendent William Hite’s Action Plan. But how can equity be achieved when children have to be in the right place at the right time – where parents have the time and skills to write grants, community members have enough free time to volunteer, and elected officials respond to their letters pleading for resources?

In his remarks, Hite praised the people who organized the library effort, proclaiming that “their efforts align with our strategy as a District to empower all schools to think innovatively about how we can incorporate libraries and other learning spaces into our schools.”

As the Inquirer story pointed out, Bache-Martin is located in “a relatively affluent, diverse neighborhood and has both an active Home and School Association and Friends group. Most Philadelphia schools lack such advantages.” Community members raised $90,000, oversaw the construction, and stocked the library. But the funds can only pay a retired teacher to be there two-and-a-half days a week through the end of next year. That means each student will be able to visit the library about every other week.

Although Hite attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the fact is that Bache-Martin now has a library despite the District’s policies. In 1991, the District’s schools had 176 librarians; now its more than 200 schools only have seven.

Superintendents over the last 20 years have overseen the dismantling of school libraries. But this is not simply for lack of funds: The District changed its budget priorities when it deleted school libraries from its overall budget, forcing individual schools to choose between librarians and other resources. Grants and philanthropic funds have been used to stock classroom libraries, but they do not have the depth or breadth of reading material to meet all students’ literacy needs. Nor do classroom libraries supply the tools and instruction needed to find and evaluate online and print information. Only a school library with a certified librarian can provide this.

Neighborhood organizations volunteer to staff part-time libraries in fewer than 15 other District schools. But as retired District school librarian Carol Heinsdorf told the Inquirer in 2017, “[Volunteers are] not meeting all these other needs that a certified school librarian would meet. It’s like putting a health room in the school and behaving as if you had a nurse in there.”

Research over the last 20 years in many states, including Pennsylvania, shows that students who have access to school libraries with full-time certified school librarians demonstrate higher academic achievement, including higher test scores, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

Educators know that the loss of school libraries and librarians has hurt Philadelphia’s children. In 2013, a distraught Marjorie Neff, who was then Masterman’s principal (and later became the District’s School Reform Commission chair), spoke to the Inquirer about the loss of the school’s librarian: “The library is the center of our instructional program here. People think about things like the library and counselors as extra. They are not extras.” Masterman did get its librarian back, as did Central High, after an anonymous donor paid for them.

Children should not have to rely on charity to get a school library or a playground or to go on a class trip. Public schools are civic responsibilities. We hope that well-meaning volunteers will continue their activism by urging state and local legislators to adequately fund public schools so that all students have access to the same resources. We can all honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the holiday that celebrates his birthday by taking political action and fighting for what Philadelphia’s children need and deserve.

Lisa Haver is a retired Philadelphia teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS).

Deborah Grill is a retired teacher and school librarian.  She is the research director for APPS.

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