Philly starts handing out library cards to students who didn’t request them

    The Free Library of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia School District have teamed up to distribute personalized library cards to every student without one.

    In a year that’s seen budget cuts all but eradicate librarians from the Philadelphia School District’s buildings, the district is now leaning even more heavily on the Free Library of Philadelphia to help make up for that shortfall.

    The schools and the library have merged their databases and determined that roughly 98,000 of the school district’s 136,000 students do not yet have cards for the city’s public libraries. Based on that data merge, the library and the district will now distribute personalized library cards to every student without one.

    On Tuesday, Philadelphia schools Superintendent William Hite, Mayor Michael Nutter and the leadership staff of the Free Library gathered at James G. Blaine Elementary in Strawberry Mansion to distribute the first batch of cards.

    “No matter what your age, no matter what your circumstance, there’s a card that everyone should have,” said Nutter as he pulled from his wallet a red and white library card, brandishing it for the cameras to see.

    “I’ve been a card carrying member of the Free Library since I was in single digits,” he said. “I want everybody in Philadelphia to have that same experience, that same opportunity, and I would suggest that other than a U.S. passport, there’s nothing else that you can carry on you that can take you farther than a library card.”

    In 2008, under Nutter’s leadership, the city cut $8 million of the library’s $41 million budget, leading to elimination of 117 staff positions, and reducing branch hours.

    Nutter’s new budget calls for a $2.5 million increase in library funding to allow longer hours at more branches. When announcing the measure in March, Nutter characterized the library cuts of 2008 as “the absolute worst decision I have made in the time I’ve been in public office.”

    If approved by City Council, the funding increase would keep all neighborhood libraries open six days a week. Since the 2008 budget cuts, most of the branch libraries have been open only five days.

    President and Director of the Free Library Siobhan A. Reardon called Nutter’s recommitment “a significant improvement” over the library’s current budget. “I want to thank the mayor for that,” she said.

    In addition to partnering with the district on the card disbursement, the Free Library boasted its other resources that aid student learning, including: free Wi-Fi at its 54 branches, and free, in-person, after school homework help.

    Locked door

    The Free Library has also helped eight district schools set up their own libraries, including Blaine.

    But like most district schools, Blaine does not staff a librarian. Principal Gianeen Powell said the school has relied on parent volunteers and City Year members to assist with student book borrowing. (Blaine is one of two district elementary schools that have been targeted for district-led renaissance turnaround. The school will stay under Powell’s leadership, but all faculty will have to reapply for their jobs.)

    According to the district, only 11 of its 212 schools are currently assigned a librarian from the central office. The district counts J. R. Masterman and Central in this number; these schools had library services returned to students in September following a $205,000 donation from an anonymous benefactor.

    The new website, Philly Teachers Sound the Alarm, has been rife with stories about the district’s lack of library services.

    In a post from Monday, Liz Taylor, a parent at Henry Houston Elementary in Mt. Airy detailed how volunteers and parents refurbished and restocked the library.

    However, “after cleaning out books from the 1960s, reaping donated books from neighboring institutions and ensuring that retired librarians would staff the library, all that the students got was a locked door,” said Taylor in the post. “The heater was broken and the district refused to fix it.”

    The school district could not immediately confirm this report.

    At the press conference, Hite stressed that: “At many of our schools, although there’s not a physical librarian, students are still accessing other materials in the libraries.”

    Increasing early childhood literacy is “anchor goal 2” of Hite’s vision for the district, as outlined in Action Plan 2.0.

    Currently, 45 percent of district third graders read on grade level. Hite’s plan calls for 100 percent of eight year olds to meet that benchmark.

    “We want to use all resources that are at our disposal, both within the district and across the city,” he said at the press conference, “and the Free Library is certainly one of those resources.”

    Hite said cards will be distributed to the rest of the district’s schools “over the next few weeks,” starting tomorrow. He urged family members and teachers to push students to actually take advantage of the opportunity.

    In some cases, though, that urging may come from students themselves.

    As one Blaine kindergartener, newly minted card in hand, put it: “My mom don’t take me to the library,” she explained. “And I’m going to ask my mom, ‘Can we go to the library?’ And my mom’s going to say, ‘Yes.'”

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