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Phila. school libraries are disappearing — this group fights the trend

On the ground floor of Blankenburg Elementary is something most city schools can only dream about: a functioning school library.

Principal Kelly Parker's budget is just as tight as anyone's. Blankenburg, at 4600 W. Girard Ave., does not have a music program or an abundance of extracurricular activities.

But it has a room with thousands of books, where, on a recent day, a third-grade class sat rapt on a colorful rug, listening to a librarian teach them about figurative language.

"We could never, ever afford this on our own, and I know how fortunate we are," Parker said. "Schools that don't have this are at a real disadvantage."

The library is open thanks to the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children, a nonprofit that organizes, reopens, and runs libraries in city public schools — free. Since 2009, it has opened 13 in the Philadelphia School District. It also runs the library at Global Leadership Academy, a charter school.

There are just eight certified school librarians left in the School District — down from nearly 200 25 years ago. In a nation where urban libraries often fall victim to budget cuts, experts say Philadelphia's may be the worst school library situation in the United States.

Children who attend schools with libraries and certified librarians fare better academically than those who do not have access to them, research shows. They are most important to children living in poverty.

WePAC's waiting list is deep, said Heather Farber, the organization's executive director and one of its two employees. (It runs on a shoestring budget of $300,000, with an army of 150 volunteers.) Phone calls from principals eager for a library are common, she said.

"It's heartbreaking for me to say, 'I want to help you, but I can't right now,'" said Farber. "There's almost a desperation in their voice. They want what's best for their kids, and they're really eager for this."

This was a harmonious buzz on a recent Tuesday, when the third graders were rapt as Marilyn Rothberg, the volunteer "library captain" at Blankenburg, read to them a book about John Henry. Colorful book jackets dangled from the ceiling, suspended by ribbons.

"E is for exaggerate," Rothberg told the class. "It's a word we use for figurative speech."

For years, Rothberg's suburban book club sent books to WePAC. When she retired as a librarian in the Great Valley School District, Rothberg joined WePAC as a volunteer.

Rothberg loves what the library lessons are able to give students.

"There's such a misconception — 'We have technology, we don't need librarians.' But there are so many skills — research skills, internet safety, website evaluation, cyberbullying," Rothberg said. "There are all these nuances that are being lost."

For the children, who joyously interacted with Rothberg and three other volunteers, perhaps the best part was what they carried out of the basement room: volumes they had chosen themselves. Some have no books at home.

"It's literature exposure and giving them an appreciation of all books," Rothberg said. "They love the choice they have here."

It costs WePAC $20,000 to reopen a library, but the organization's immediate goal is broadening the number of students it reaches at its current schools. Because of budget and volunteer limitations, it guarantees library services only to kindergarten through third graders.

The public library closest to Blankenburg isn't close enough for most families to access, Parker said, so the two days a week the school library is open mean a great deal. He loves that his second graders are able to choose the same "Fancy Nancy" books his own daughter gravitates toward at her suburban school library.

"The kids are really just excited about reading," said Parker, who sits on WePAC's board of trustees. "It really helps with the curriculum."

Toni Waddington sees the benefit firsthand. The third-grade teacher watched as her class chose books, worked on book word searches, and interacted with volunteers.

"They are so happy to take books home," Waddington said. "And the vocabulary! They will say, 'Ms. Waddington, we heard that word at the library.' "

WePAC isn't the fix to Philadelphia's library problem, Farber said. Pennsylvania mandates libraries in prisons but not in schools, and it is a shame that the organization's services are needed, she said.

"We don't take the place of a certified librarian," said Farber. "We don't want to let the district off the hook."

Big changes are coming to Blankenburg. The district recently announced that the school will enter its turnaround network, with staff and administrators required to reapply for their jobs.

But, as long as it is needed, WePAC will fill in gaps where it can.

"You go one mile over the border to the school in the next suburb, and there's a facility that rivals any in the country," Farber said. "Some Philadelphia school libraries have been closed for generations."