Philadelphia School District librarians: a species nearly extinct?

Bernadette Kearney, librarian at Julia R. Masterman School.

How many full-time, certified librarians would you guess one of the nation's largest school systems - a district with 220 schools and 134,000 students - employs?

One hundred? Two hundred?

Not even close. Eight certified, full-time school librarians staff Philadelphia School District buildings. A handful of others juggle library responsibilities with teaching classes. Many school libraries are closed entirely.

School libraries have been disappearing in Philadelphia and elsewhere for years, but that the number of full-time, certified librarians is now in the single digits is astonishing, even to those who study library trends.

"That has to be the worst nationally," said Debra Kachel, a school-library expert and instructor at Antioch University Seattle. "It's really appalling."

As Philadelphia school budgets have shrunk, librarians have grown rarer, almost to the point of extinction. In 1991, the school system employed 176 certified librarians. Now, the librarians are only at Anderson, Elkin, Greenberg, Penn Alexander, Roosevelt, and Sullivan elementaries and Central and South Philadelphia High Schools.

In addition to the librarian-staffed libraries, 13 libraries are kept open by 128 volunteers from the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children, according to the district.

The district, which until very recently did not have full-time nurses and counselors in every school, is on more solid financial ground than it had been in recent years, noted H. Lee Whack Jr., a spokesman, but "we still have a long way to go."

"Because of that, we have to prioritize how money is used," Whack said. "Principals are empowered to allocate resources as they see fit to maximize positive impacts for our students. But there are things that are required that we just don't have enough funding for."

Penn Alexander, a neighborhood elementary school in West Philadelphia, has a National Blue Ribbon, a thriving library, and a full-time, certified librarian.

It has managed to keep them in large part because the school has the benefit of outside help - the University of Pennsylvania provides the school with extra staff and $1,330 a student.

"The library is literally at the heart of the school," said Michael Farrell, the first-year principal. "It's not just about the books, but about showing students that we value literacy and learning."

When Farrell was a student, going to the library "was a joyful experience, a very important time in the week," he said. "And every kid deserves that."

Bernadette Kearney isn't counted among the eight; she's the librarian at Masterman, but is counted as a member of the English department and teaches 12 classes a week.

That her job title has almost disappeared in Philadelphia is unnerving, she said. She's hung in, but a number of certified librarians have opted to leave libraries and become full-time classroom teachers for job security.

"Since 1991, every year, I think, 'I hope I don't get cut,' " she said. But the issue is much larger than jobs for librarians, she said.

The research is clear: Students who attend schools with libraries and credentialed librarians perform better on standardized tests than those who lack them. Lower-income students benefit the most.

Masterman, a top city magnet, draws students from across Philadelphia.

"For the majority of them, this is their first experience in a school library," Kearney said. In an era when research, critical thinking, and distinguishing what is truth are of crucial importance, the virtual absence of libraries leaves a major hole in urban students' education.

"The librarian is much more than the person who helps kids select books," Kearney said. "The teachers can only cover so much in a day; we're a resource for them. Everything that we've been doing for years and years matches the Core Curriculum."

The number of school librarians nationally has dropped over the years, but the decline is especially steep in Philadelphia.

Still, that's not the case in many suburban schools, where libraries have evolved into tech hubs, with 3D printers and maker-spaces and librarians providing sophisticated instructional programs.

"The rest of the world seems to be moving on, and nothing is happening for schools in Philadelphia," said Kachel, the school-library professor and expert.

Officials rejoiced recently when the organizing committee for the Democratic National Convention announced it was donating $750,000 to a nonprofit that will buy 80,000 books for Philadelphia schools.

But the books will fill not school libraries but libraries in primary-grade classrooms.

Classroom libraries are a fine resource, said Carol Heinsdorf, a retired Philadelphia librarian, but no substitute for a school library.

"There's no way that you can have a third-grade collection that meets the needs of all the children in the classroom," Heinsdorf said. "People's consciences are assuaged because they've provided books for children, but they're 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."

At Ludlow Elementary in North Philadelphia, the library is just a room with outdated books collecting dust. The school hasn't had a librarian for 20 years, principal Carol Williams said.

She would love to pay to update the collection and hire a librarian, but that's just not feasible, she said.

"I can do a lot more with that money than purchasing the salary of one person to be physically placed in the library," Williams said. "The times are definitely moving toward technology."

Each Ludlow classroom has at least six computers, Williams said, and students in primary grades have access to both classroom libraries and programs that give them access to hundreds of online books.

"We're choosing to do things a different way," Williams said.

Central High, a top city school, used to have three assistant principals, said Timothy McKenna, its president. It now has two so it can keep its library open and staffed.

"For us, it was key," McKenna said. "We're preparing kids for college. A full-time librarian has time to work with our students around databases, and learning how to research properly, and gives them important skills. It's right along with our mission statement."

Still, McKenna knows that the district's funding situation makes for "stark choices," he said. "Other schools struggle with this."

To Jerry Jordan, the teachers' union president, the disappearing school library sends the wrong message, undermining the district's push toward early literacy.

"Prisons in Pennsylvania are required to have a library, but schools aren't," Jordan said. "It's disgraceful that this has been allowed to happen to our children."

kgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-5146@newskag

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