Just seven Philadelphia public schools now have functioning libraries with certified school librarians, down from 200 decades ago.
So it was a big deal this month when the community celebrated the reopening of the library at Bache-Martin Elementary at a ceremony where politicians made speeches and TV cameras rolled. The price tag for the library and a part-time staffer was $90,000, paid through the hard work and fund-raising prowess of a nonprofit organized by parents to support the school in Fairmount, a diverse and relatively affluent section of the city.
The act felt familiar, with people pitching in to pay for what the Philadelphia School District no longer could or did.
But to many, the library laid bare a truth in city schools — the divisions between the haves, often in whiter and wealthier neighborhoods, who can fund-raise for new playgrounds and support staff salaries, and the have-nots, in under-resourced schools mostly populated by kids of color, left to make do with whatever they can scrape together.
Stephanie King, a parent at Kearny Elementary in Northern Liberties, heard the news of the Bache-Martin triumph and felt frustration, she said, in part because “the district is putting the work of funding on the shoulders of parents because they can’t or won’t fix things themselves.”
(The district said it lets principals decide whether to prioritize libraries and librarians, but virtually no one has the money to pay for what is expected in most private and suburban schools.)
“It’s absolutely not possible for a school that’s got a 99 percent poverty rate to raise $90,000 for a library, or for anything,” said King, president of Kearny Friends and a member of the Home and School Association for Kearny, whose student poverty rate is approaching that figure. “The only way would be if we won an outside grant, or if an outside group more or less gifted it to us, like a fairy godmother.”
Shereda Cromwell, a parent at Kenderton Elementary in North Philadelphia, said her school is like a lot of others.
“Kudos to parents who can get together and advocate and raise money, but I know a lot of schools that can’t even worry about fund-raising for big things, like a library," said Cromwell, who is struggling to start a parents' group at her school, where 94 percent of students live in poverty. “They’re trying to make sure that every child that comes to school has a winter coat and socks on. That’s what our school is looking at, that’s where our resources have to go.”
The contrasts are stark. At Chester Arthur, in South Philadelphia, the community raised $1.7 million in grants and donations over five years to build a new playground and outdoor classroom; the Home and School Association at Greenfield, in Center City, has a $125,000 annual fund to spend on after-school programs, technology, and enrichment.
The Friends of Bache-Martin made their library happen with crowdfunding, grants, and two years of elbow grease; their funds paid for technology, supplies, and the salary of a part-time retired teacher to staff it for at least two years.
Jerilyn Dressler, the Friends of Bache president, said she hoped their community’s efforts serve as a model. But her group members know they have advantages that others don’t.
“This shouldn’t be something that takes thousands of dollars or thousands of volunteer hours,” Dressler said before the library’s opening. “Everyone should have the resources to do this.”
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. stressed that he loved the Bache-Martin community’s coming together to rally for literacy in the form of a reopened school library, a wish-list item of school staff, but that other schools have identified upgraded technology or a new play space as their top priorities.
Still, Hite acknowledged, there is an equity issue among the district’s 220 schools.
“Everyone doesn’t have a `friends of' group that can raise the types of moneys that they’ve raised here,” the superintendent said at the Bache-Martin library opening this month, “or the type of money that was raised at Chester Arthur to do a new playground, or the types of moneys to donate instruments that some of our schools have.”
Hite said the district has addressed the equity issue with initiatives like a $20 million citywide classroom modernization project and turnaround programs worth millions more that give the city’s most struggling schools more resources, support, and scrutiny.
But those have limited scope; the modernization project revamped 250 of the city’s thousands of classrooms. The turnaround efforts also target a limited number of schools, and the money that comes with them must generally be spent on district-identified priorities.
The fund-raising equity issue came up this month at a school board committee meeting where officials detailed the schools' budget process. Let me get this straight, board members asked: Even though schools might start on a level playing field, those in better-resourced communities often end up with more?
Essentially, that’s how it works, said chief financial officer Uri Monson.
“If you have that kind of community, and if your school is lucky enough to have Kevin Hart as an alum, these are not funds that we can redistribute or choose who gets what,” Monson said at the meeting. (Hart, a George Washington High graduate, has donated hundreds of thousands to purchase computers for district schools and also given money to put charter-school students through college.)
Taggart Elementary School in South Philadelphia has a library thanks mostly to the work of its staff. Teacher David Hensel devised a system to allow students to check books out of the library, which closed years ago, when budget cuts decimated most school libraries. Each class got its own binder, and each student had a page in the class binder with space for recording the books they had checked out. Hensel, who is now the Taggart dean, devised a schedule for teachers to take their classes to the library, and he used prep periods and lunches to reshelve books.
A local business, the Nelson Group, paid to renovate the Taggart library, which still operates using Hensel’s system. The school’s reading specialist now uses the library as her home base, and though a librarian would be a dream, Hensel said, that’s not happening absent district help.
With a student body made up of largely poor and immigrant children, large-scale parent and community fund-raising “is not something that’s possible here,” he said. “And even if it was, I wouldn’t want it. Funding things the district should, that just digs a deeper hole not just for yourself, but for everybody.”
Cromwell, the Kenderton parent, said that a library is “a wish to a school like ours" and that she doesn’t begrudge the better-off schools their bells and whistles, but it stings.
“I signed my kids up for the same things those parents signed their kids up for: a free public education,” Cromwell said. “It’s sad how different it is for kids in different neighborhoods.”
How do you fix the chasm? Funding, officials said.
At the library opening, State Rep. Donna Bullock (D., Phila.) looked around the room and alluded to the divide between what Bache-Martin could provide for its students and what others lack.
“What this day also reminds us is the importance of funding public education — we don’t fund it fairly," Bullock said. “It is my responsibility to go back to the state and to make sure that we have libraries like this in each and every one of our schools.”
Philadelphia Media Network is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. See all of our reporting at https://brokeinphilly.org.