On Jan. 24, about 150 individuals protested the School District of Philadelphia’s lack of certified librarians in the majority of its schools, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Philadelphia has the most disproportionate ratio of librarians to students in the nation, with a total of seven librarians for approximately 125,000 students across 215 schools, the Inquirer further reported.
In fact, the number of full-time, certified librarians in Philadelphia district schools decreased by more than 90 percent since 1991, when the district had 176 librarians on staff, according to Pacific Standard, a social justice magazine.
When I first read these statistics, my heart broke. I’m studying to become a middle school English teacher in Philadelphia, and it’s devastating to see students are being denied the resources they need due to frequent budget cuts.
“Having a library and having it incorporated into our academics was such a big part of Masterman because we’re a college preparatory school,” said Wipawan Sirivongxai, a freshman health professions major and an alumna of Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School at Spring Garden and 17th streets.
In 2013, budget cuts forced the principal at Masterman to fire the school librarian, among other personnel, the Inquirer reported that year.
“As soon as we heard our library’s shut down and our librarian’s been fired due to budget cuts, it was such a big shock throughout the school,” Sirivongxai said. “Not only are our resources cut, but now we have one less teacher to go to.”
It’s unacceptable that the district has such a poor ratio of librarians to students, and with a district comprised of 73 percent Black and Latinx students, according to 2018-19 data from the district, we’re disproportionately harming students of color.
Students experiencing poverty are more likely to be in a school without a certified librarian, according to a 2015 study by the Washington Library Media Association. That study found students who attend schools with certified librarians are more likely to perform well on standardized tests and to graduate.
“Access to libraries is extremely important to the education of kids, period,” said Will Jordan, an associate professor of urban education. “Philly not having that, and being in the bottom placement, that positions all the kids to be in the bottom as well.”
The benefits of having a school librarian are abundantly clear, as guided access to books is correlated with higher literacy rates and reading performance, the WLMA study further found.
“Up until fourth grade, students are learning to read, but after fourth grade, they’re reading to learn, they’re given material around content,” said Lori Shorr, an associate professor of urban education and former chief education officer for the City of Philadelphia. “If they’re reading below grade level, they’re not going to be able to read grade-level content … and then they fall farther and farther behind.”
Librarians also provide students access to and instructional help with technology, which are skills that will be essential in our current digital culture.
“The School District of Philadelphia believes that literacy development is fundamental to student success, as evidenced by our Anchor Goal 2: that 100 percent of 8-year-olds will read on or above grade level,” wrote Imahni Moise, media relations specialist for the School District of Philadelphia, in an email to The Temple News.
The district offers a variety of other resources, like instructional books, media and technology, classroom libraries and student access to the PA Power Library, Moise added.
But of the schools without full-time, certified librarians, only 12 have open libraries due to contributions of uncertified, part-time volunteer staff, the Inquirer reported. That still leaves more than 200 schools without open libraries to provide students with information and resources they’ll need to succeed.
The issue is based in funding disparities, as the district spends about $12,570 per student each year, far below the average amount in other cities, according to a 2015 report by Pew Charitable Trusts on school funding in Philadelphia.
The solution is simple: increase funding to Philadelphia schools.
Recent budget reductions forced the district to cut mostly everything not mandated by the state, including librarians, Shorr said. Although we cannot control how the economy affects school funding, we can determine what the state mandates for its schools, and librarians are essential to that.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly needs to pass Pennsylvania House Bill 1355, introduced by Rep. Mark Longetti (D-7), which would provide a certified librarian in every public school as a short-term, immediate solution to this crisis.
“It is the state of Pennsylvania’s constitutional responsibility to provide a thorough and efficient education for its students,” Shorr said. “At this point, they are not funding schools based on how many students they serve or based on the need of those students.”
In the long term, however, state funding of public schools needs to change to ensure that city schools are given adequate monetary resources to operate with a fully staffed team.
Education is a tool that helps families experiencing poverty access to vital resources. By depriving our students of certified librarians, we’re setting them up for failure, and that’s unfair.