Universities, Nonprofits Step Up to Aid Depleted Philadelphia Public School Libraries

Across Philadelphia’s 217 public schools, there are just four certified librarians, but universities and nonprofits are helping fill the gap.

This photo shows a Philadelphia public school library.
Across Philadelphia’s 217 public schools, there are just four certified librarians, making the ratio four to 113,000 students, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan told the Capital-Star. (Ella Lathan/Capital-Star)

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Philadelphia is known for its prominent universities like the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, Temple, St. Joseph’s, and others.

Their presence boasts a rich educational and medical landscape. While the abundance of such institutions suggests an ample availability of libraries, this is seldom the case for Philadelphia public school students.

And according to one union leader, the numbers are stark.

Across Philadelphia’s 217 public schools, there are just four certified librarians, making the ratio four to 113,000 students, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan told the Capital-Star.

Without staffing – and resources – many of the city’s public school libraries are unable to run at full capacity. While teachers and volunteers are trying to make sure students have access, a number of groups around Philadelphia are also working to make a difference.

“Libraries are important for the holistic growth of children and teens in literacy, social skills, collaboration, cooperation, creativity, and more,” said Christine Caputo, chief of Youth Services and Programs at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

“Library programs are some of the first places that young children can make their own decisions,” Caputo said. “Their families bring them for storytimes and then they can choose what books they want to borrow to read at home. This is a very powerful experience for the growth of children.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported in 2019, that reading at grade level by the fourth grade sets up many students for success and encourages healthy behaviors. A student’s reading comprehension skills impact overall academic success, and ultimately the ability to go on to college.

Read By 4th is an early literacy movement that is supported citywide by more than 150 partner organizations, parents, volunteers, and community members. It provides resources not only to students but parents.

“Read By 4th is [one of] the many organizations in Philly doing awesome literacy work,”

Gina Pambianchi, who leads the Penn Libraries’ work with public school libraries, told the Capital-Star.

“During the pandemic, a lot of the focus was kind of switched around, from like classroom collections [to] building students’ home collections,” Pambianchi said.

Universities have been stepping up in the last 15 years as funding across Pennsylvania for public school libraries declined. According to the School Library Journal Pennsylvania ranks sixth among states that have lost the most librarians since 2010.

It’s a loss that usually hits low-income schools hardest because of limited resources and hard budget decisions staff must make, Jordan said.

Temple University has been trying to offer more support for surrounding public school libraries. “Kids in relatively well-off suburban high schools have access to a whole lot more support, and sort of general resources,” Temple Dean of Libraries Joseph Lucia told the Capital-Star. “Part of this for us is about trying to do a little bit of equity work, [to] create more access to the things that make a difference when you are curious, or ambitious, intellectually or creatively.”

The university’s efforts were stymied by the pandemic.

“Part of what we would like to do is bring some of the early grade students into the library for reading story hour type experiences and then allow them to borrow materials, take them away for three weeks, and bring them back. So using our collection to give them greater access to books they may not have in their homes,” Lucia said.

A Sign of the Times

The nonprofit West Philadelphia Alliance for Children (WePAC), was founded to provide literacy programs to young public school students and today it circulates 45,151 books per month. According to its website, WePAC “is funded entirely by private dollars and provides all of its services at no cost to schools or to the School District of Philadelphia.”

Before the pandemic, WePAC had reopened 19 public school libraries. It’s now on track to reopen 13 more, according to Pambianchi and administrators at WePAC.

Executive Director Jennifer Leith said the group receives a lot of support from retired teachers and the University of Pennsylvania. Penn Libraries, staff and students have provided technical assistance with cataloging and helped WePAC acquire new books. 

Leith described the experience as “eye-opening.”

 “The district does want teachers to have library collections in their classrooms, but the teachers have to fund that themselves. It’s been a little eye-opening. I have to say some of the things I didn’t realize about what was happening behind the walls of the schools. But a lot of expectation is put on the teachers in terms of filling their classroom with resources and tools so that they can in fact teach the kids – so hopefully that will change,” Leith said.

Like many others in the district, Leith is hoping for more fully operational, equitable public school libraries, especially after this year’s Commonwealth Court ruling finding Pennsylvania’s school funding system unconstitutional and its mandate that policymakers fix the system.

The issue isn’t limited to just Philadelphia, Leith said.

“I think it’s a sign of the times, not just the district. It begs the question if the school district does, in fact, magically become able to support a certified school librarian in each of its schools, where are those people going to come from,” Leith asked. “The larger question is can we leverage some of the people in the greater Philadelphia area who [are] studying library science and bring them into these library spaces? Ironically, Drexel’s program no longer has a track for certified school librarians because there is no need in Philadelphia, there are no jobs for them.”

Still, with the recent Commonwealth Court ruling and the need for school building repairs in Philadelphia, it is unclear whether libraries and librarians will be a priority in the next few years. It was not listed in Superintendent Dr. Tony Watlington Senior’s Five Year Academic Plan for the district.

Said Caputo: “For communities, public libraries are about the only space remaining that is free, safe, and a place you can come and stay a while no matter who you are and what your background is.  Libraries do not require anyone to buy anything or to be anything [other] than who they are.  Libraries are also very important places for the success of democracy.”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

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