When the number of certified Philadelphia School District librarians dwindled to the single digits, Penny Colgan-Davis sprang into action. She had spent a long, distinguished career as a teacher and administrator in city public, private, and charter schools, working to build community and solve problems, and wanted to do the same in retirement.

So in 2015, Colgan-Davis, who had spent years at Friends Select, Miquon, and Frankford Friends, set her sights on reopening a public school library.

“Most Philadelphia schools do not have libraries. It’s criminal,” her husband, John, recalled her saying.

The effort led by Colgan-Davis is the reason an enthusiastic group of kindergartners was able to buzz around the colorful John B. Kelly School library on a recent day: Volunteers have made possible what school budgets can no longer stretch to pay for. (School District officials say principals are still free to budget for librarians, but virtually none can afford one.)

Just nine Philadelphia public schools have certified school librarians; about a dozen have functioning libraries opened and staffed by volunteer organizations, or kept open by other means. Decades ago, nearly every city school employed a librarian, but budget cuts decimated librarians’ ranks in Philadelphia and in urban districts nationwide.

Students who attend schools with libraries and certified librarians perform better on standardized tests, research shows, with low-income students reaping the most benefit.

That’s why reopening Kelly’s library was so important to Colgan-Davis, who mobilized volunteers to organize and modernize the large space in the Germantown school. The library reopened in 2016, two years before her death.

It is, Kelly principal Kala Johnstone said, “a godsend," a place children love. Volunteers, including John Colgan-Davis, keep the library going, reading stories to children, and helping them select and borrow books.

Jaki Greer (left) and London Bey spend time at Penny's Place in the John B. Kelly School library. It's named for Penny Colgan-Davis, a longtime educator who led the charge to re-open Kelly's library in 2016.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Jaki Greer (left) and London Bey spend time at Penny's Place in the John B. Kelly School library. It's named for Penny Colgan-Davis, a longtime educator who led the charge to re-open Kelly's library in 2016.

In October, the school marked the opening of “Penny’s Place,” turning what was a large unused corner of the library into a cozy reading nook, bright with student-created murals and perfect for kids to stretch out in.

It’s part of the continued evolution of the Kelly library, said John Colgan-Davis, a musician and retired educator who believes that books saved his life growing up in Philadelphia.

“Penny is not here, but the idea of expanding the library is still here,” he said. “She’d say: ‘What do kids need? What can we do to help them get that?’ ”

John Colgan-Davis reads a story to students in the library at the John B. Kelly School, a library that his wife, Penny Colgan-Davis, worked to reopen.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
John Colgan-Davis reads a story to students in the library at the John B. Kelly School, a library that his wife, Penny Colgan-Davis, worked to reopen.

Kelly volunteers hope next to raise funds to computerize the library; circulation records are kept by hand. They want to share ideas with a handful of other similar Philadelphia school libraries, and to raise funds for new books through grants. In the meantime, they’re focused on a program that pairs volunteers with children for one-on-one reading help, and on putting books in children’s hands whenever possible.

But even without computers, the library still hums along, four days a week for four hours a day. Twenty-five volunteers staff it, including Veronica Alston, who sorted books on a recent day and said she came weekly to help give her grandchildren’s school what is still commonplace in private and suburban schools.

“Every school I worked in had a library; our kids need that,” said Alston, a retired Philadelphia principal.

Alyssa Williams-Lowery, a Kelly fourth grader, agreed.

“I love the library; it’s a good place, and I like to sit down and read here,” said Alyssa, who helped design the murals in Penny’s Place.

Penny Colgan-Davis, a teacher and administrator in Philadelphia public, charter, and private schools, died in 2018. She loved libraries.
Courtesy of the family
Penny Colgan-Davis, a teacher and administrator in Philadelphia public, charter, and private schools, died in 2018. She loved libraries.

Doris Heise, a retired suburban school librarian, is now Kelly’s head librarian, a woman easily able to enthrall a group of kindergartners and get them amped up about reading.

“I found a Toy Story book!” a little girl shouted, waving the paperback volume she would eventually take home.

Heise said she thought about the generous book budget she had in Jenkintown and wonders what a difference it would make at Kelly, where most of the 622 children in grades K-5 live in poverty.

“We do a great job, but it’s not the same as someone who comes in every day,” Heise said. “These kids should have everything.”

Another volunteer nodded. Toni Sharp, a retired Friends’ Central teacher, said she wishes education was funded differently and more generously by the state. But until systemic change comes, Sharp helps 5-year-olds select just the right books.

“We have to do our bit to make things happen,” Sharp said. “We owe it to our kids.”