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In a district with few libraries, this Philly school pulled off a miracle and opened its own

Only a handful of Philadelphia public schools have libraries and certified school librarians. One Philadelphia high school managed to stock and open its own homespun library.

Building 21, a Philly public high school, created a school library from scratch.
Building 21, a Philly public high school, created a school library from scratch.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

The miracle began with a box of donated books.

Eric Hitchner was an English teacher new to Building 21 — a public high school in West Oak Lane — when he lugged that first carton from a nearby book bank into his third-floor classroom. The handful of students eating lunch in his room were awed.

“They went nuts: ‘Can we take these?’” Hitchner remembers. He’d had some books in his room for students to read, but the possibility of choosing books, taking them home, shifted things for the kids. “I thought, ‘We need more than just a bookshelf in a classroom.’”

The kids borrowed a dozen books that day, and an idea was born. Five years later, it’s blossomed into a library — a rarity in city public schools.

The Philadelphia School District, with 200-plus schools, employed 176 certified school librarians in 1991. Today, that number is fewer than 10, though even the few remaining librarians aren’t sure exactly how many are left. Of the schools that have managed to hang on to their librarians, most have them juggle that job with another. About 15 additional district schools have school libraries that operate part time thanks to the efforts of a city nonprofit and outside volunteers.

Philadelphia has the worst ratio of school librarians in the country, according to the Pennsylvania Association of School Librarians. The district permits principals to pay to stock libraries and employ librarians, but stretching school budgets to accommodate that is a luxury almost no one can afford.

Building 21′s new homespun library has no budget, no librarian, and was built entirely with used and new books donated or purchased cheaply at yard sales or through online marketplace sites. But though it lacks computers, a digital circulation system, or any of the sophisticated bells and whistles that are the hallmarks of better-resourced schools, the Building 21 library feels like a gift, said Simone Burrell, a recent graduate.

“I feel like it sparks an interest of wanting to read,” said Burrell, who helped build the library as a student intern during her time at Building 21. “Even if you do go into the library to meet up with someone, it’s just a good feeling.”

Room 307 is an inviting space, colorful and charming, with mismatched bookshelves, chairs and tables, a chess set, lots of natural light, displays of featured books, and photographs of students who helped along the way. In one corner, students can grab books aimed at young children: Building 21 students can take a “Young Readers’ Pledge,” promising to share the reading wealth with siblings or others in the community.

And though a library built on donations means the 3,000-book collection is a bit of a grab bag, Hitchner has been as intentional as possible in piecing it together, looking for the kinds of titles he knows students want to read.

“You get good vibes walking in, and that’s what a library should be,” said Hitchner.

Assembling a library from scratch and around full-time teaching responsibilities was slow work — and work interrupted by the pandemic — but Hitchner and the students and colleagues who helped had a goal in mind.

“We wanted to build up a culture of kids reading and writing,” said Hitchner.

Early results — the library opened this fall — are promising.

At the beginning of the year, teacher Sara Grieb asked the students in her humanities elective for English language learners for their perceptions about reading.

“They said they don’t enjoy it, they hate reading. They are below grade level; they just had these negative experiences and perceptions of reading,” said Grieb. “I said, ‘My belief is that you just haven’t found the right book yet.’”

Within minutes of taking her class to the library for the first time, each student had found a section that “captivated them,” Grieb said. One picked up a book written in Spanish; the others gravitated toward books in English.

“They were just excited that it was theirs,” said Grieb. Now, library time is a fixture in her schedule; the class comes to the library to browse twice a week.

Research shows that students with access to school libraries and certified librarians perform better academically than peers without those resources.

To Brianne MacNamara, Building 21′s principal, the library is a point of pride, a project she’s happy to support in any way she can, she said.

“Any time that you have a school community who sees a need like that and does something about it and acts on it, it’s very inspiring,” said MacNamara. “Being able to give children voice and choice in what they’re reading and different genres exposures — that experience is really powerful for kids.”

Stepping inside the put-together room is sometimes overwhelming for Hitchner, who wondered at points if the ambitious project was feasible or practical.

“It felt like a reverse Field of Dreams sometimes — are people going to come?” he said. (Those feelings often hit on the tough days, when Hitchner and his volunteers sweated through sweltering days in an un-air-conditioned room or lugged furniture up four flights of steps.)

But as word spreads that Building 21 has a library, students have begun showing up. Principal MacNamara has been able to spare Hitchner from advisory duty this year so he can keep the library open during that time block, and he and others spend prep periods there when they can.

Students like Burrell still feel connected to the school because of the library they helped build, they said. Maya Euell-Hazard, another June graduate of Building 21, remembers being shocked when she moved to Philadelphia from California and learned that schools in her new city didn’t have libraries.

“It was disappointing,” said Euell-Hazard. So when Hitchner suggested she join the team creating one, she jumped. “I spent most of my lunchtime there, and after school. I’m an introvert, and I didn’t want to be in a loud lunchroom. The library was the perfect place to decompress.”

Euell-Hazard, who’s studying graphic design at a community college in California, wants to come back at some point to work on art on the library walls.

The library is open, but Hitchner has more dreams for it: more help to organize the collection, which isn’t yet fully alphabetized, more culturally relevant books, professional expertise.

“I would love a trained, certified librarian,” said Hitchner. “Computers would be nice. A budget would be nice.”