Mar 27, 2024 - News

Most Philadelphia district schools lack librarians

Illustration of a tiny person facing a brick wall, which is also the interior of a giant book.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Philadelphia has only a handful of full-time certified librarians across its 218 district schools.

Why it matters: School libraries staffed with certified librarians have been shown to boost student achievement and graduation rates, particularly for students of color and students from low-income households.

State of play: The School District of Philadelphia has four full-time certified librarians this year for more than 116,000 students, per spokesperson Marissa Orbanek.

  • She declined to identify which schools have those librarians.

Plus: The district has 24 additional certified librarians on staff, although they are working in non-library roles, like teaching in another subject area.

  • It's unclear how many of the city's 82 charter schools have full-time certified librarians.
  • "We looked into this and, unfortunately, we don't have a reliable number to share," Peng Chao, the city's chief of charter schools, tells Axios.

Flashback: In 2020, Philly public schools had seven certified librarians and 176 in 1991, per the Inquirer.

The big picture: Librarians are missing from schools nationwide.

The intrigue: Some district schools keep their libraries open using volunteers from groups that include West Philadelphia Alliance for Children (WPAC) and Penn Libraries, as well as alumni and home and school associations.

  • Yes, but: Orbanek declined to say how many library volunteers the district has and in which schools. WPAC did not return requests seeking comment.

Zoom in: It's up to individual school officials to determine how libraries are used.

  • About 119 Philly schools self-reported to the district that they have a "designated space to provide various services and library-related activities" for students, per Orbanek.

Between the lines: The district has struggled with underfunding for decades and is facing a budget deficit this year.

  • Officials are "committed to prioritizing reading and literacy" for students while they advocate for more adequate funding, Orbanek says.

What they're saying: This status quo has persisted for years, Debra Kachel, committee member of the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association, tells Axios.

  • "It's just been a long, long-entrenched idea that this district simply cannot provide school libraries for kids because it's too big an issue, it costs too much money, nobody's in charge, nobody knows how to get some kind of solution," said Kachel, who was also a researcher on the SLIDE analysis.

Threat level: Many Philly district students do not meet state literacy standards.

  • Just 34% of 3rd through 8th graders met or exceeded state standards in English in 2022-23.
  • Nearly 53% of 11th graders met or exceeded proficiency for literature on the state Keystone exams in 2023.
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