As School Library Month draws to a close, a struggle continues to keep libraries in Philadelphia’s schools open.
The cash strapped-district has only 11 librarians still working, and most libraries are able to stay in commission only because of volunteer support.
One of those still functioning libraries is housed in Lea Elementary School where, early in April, kindergartners listened attentively to an writer read.
Behind the scenes, the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children, the University of Pennsylvania, and four other nonprofits maintain the library and the school’s reading mentorship program.
All organizations report to Maurice Jones who volunteers every school day as Lea’s Home and School president.
School libraries are important because they are a home base for literacy programs, Jones said.
“The library is a hub for all of this individual programming. It works out of the library and extends out into the school,” he said. “So the library is the focal point, and, without it, a lot of times you don’t have all these other things.”
There are other ways to keep school libraries open. Central High School, for instance, raises money each year to pay a full-time librarian.
But Gina Steiner, principal of Parkway Northwest High School, says it can be challenging to secure those funds year after year.
“We’re all sometimes hitting the same organization,” she said. “Sometimes principals have to be resourceful and say ‘Who else is out there?’ or ‘Could we write a grant?’ or ‘Could we tap into somebody else?”
Steiner began working with Parkway Northwest when it downsized in 2012 to share a location with Philadelphia Military Academy at Leeds. Today, the only library programming comes from volunteer mentors who come once a week from Arcadia University in Glenside.
Arcadia freshman Bryant Washington said it’s important to support his mentee, ninth-grader Marquise Moore.
“I’m from this area, and I didn’t know that this school didn’t have the resources at all. I expected the library to at least be somewhat decent,” Washington said. “There’s not much here.”
The library is also used for assemblies and as a practice space for the dance team.
The district tries to encourage keeping libraries open, Steiner said. But without funding, it makes no demands.
“Other than schools should have libraries and that’s just a fact about what we know is good for students, there’s no one saying that you have to have a library because they know our resources are so limited,” she said.
For Jones, the dad who coordinates the library at Lea Elementary, just providing a space for kids to enjoy reading is worth the effort.
“Most of us as adults know that we take a quiet time and find a quiet space and read a book. When you’re in an environment that’s hustle and bustle and people are coming in, whatever it is — you don’t have time to wind down and enjoy a book,” he said. “So having a quiet place like a library is very important.”