Philadelphia Students Navigate School Without Access to School Libraries

The School District of Philadelphia has just one school librarian for the 2023-2024 school year.

This is a photo of a Philadelphia school library.
Teacher Eric Hitchner built a DIY library using many books from his personal collection (Eric Hitchner)

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In 2020, Egypt Luckey graduated from Building 21, a high school in Northwest Philadelphia affiliated with the Learning Innovative network, which emphasizes real-world learning experiences. For the entirety of her high school career, Luckey never had a public school library available to her, and she thinks it put her at a disadvantage during the transition to college.

“I never had a library in school where I could actually go, sit, and enjoy reading because I am a bookworm. I love reading, writing, anything that has a creative expression,” Luckey said. “Not having that experience kind of set me back a little bit because I had these situations where I needed help but didn’t know what to do in those moments.”

A 2022 study by Rutgers University found that first-year college students who had prior high school research experience, especially those from schools with certified librarians, felt more confident in their academic research skills and performed better in using research tools and strategies, such as information and digital literacy, and the difference between a primary and secondary source of information.

“Our students need to develop the skills to learn on their own. [They need] the thinking skills to be able to discern information that they can believe, in order to become digital citizens,” Barbara Stripling, cofounder of the Philadelphia Alliance to Restore School Libraries (PARSL) said. “They need to be taught these skills, they need opportunities to practice them, and it needs to become who they are. They need to understand the importance of looking at multiple perspectives.”

PARSL is a nonprofit organization staffed by retired educators and librarians. It operates without external funding, relying solely on volunteers. The organization wants to improve public school libraries in Philadelphia, aiming to improve academic performance. PARSL produced a white paper earlier in 2023 addressing the link between students’ reading abilities and the shortage of librarians, proposing solutions that involve collaboration with the school district and City Council to secure additional funding.

In the School District of Philadelphia, the number of school librarians has declined over the past decade, from about 57 in the 2012-2013 school year to just one in the 2023-2024 school year.

Marissa Orbanek, communications officer for the Philadelphia School District said that the district does not have enough funds for all the positions that are ultimately needed and desired.

“We will continue to advocate for adequate and equitable funding for education so that historically underfunded districts, like Philadelphia, have the resources necessary to provide all students with access to the 21st-century learning environments, including libraries and Instructional Media Centers,” Orbanek said.

Inside a Philadelphia classroom

Eric Hitchner, a halftime English teacher and English as a Second Language (ESL) coordinator for grades 9-12 at Building 21 in Philadelphia, has created a do-it-yourself library in his classroom. Some extra books he forgot he had in his car proved a treasure trove for his students, he said.

Eric Hitchner’s classroom library. (Eric Hitchner)

“It was like this light bulb moment,” Hitchner said. “There’s a dynamic that when we’re in the middle of a lesson, you’re not going to go to the back and borrow a book, we need that actual dedicated space. So we started creating one, we don’t have a librarian, [and] we don’t have a budget. We don’t have books, those are all things I had to kind of scrounge.”

Hitchner has since found donors, visited garage sales, and thrift shops to find books to stock his DIY library. He added he couldn’t have done it without the help of students like Egypt Luckey.

“Egypt is one of the amazing students I taught for English and creative writing who volunteered to be a library intern and get the library started all those years ago,” he said. With COVID interrupting her high school career, Luckey wasn’t able to complete the work, he said. “But we would have never gotten that far without her help.”

Luckey said she did it because she wanted to be a part of something bigger than just Building 21.

“We had so many ideas and things we wanted to do, execute, and just talking about the lack of libraries in a lot of the public high schools and public schools in general, just excites me,” Luckey said. She’s hopeful that her efforts might inspire others to do the same at other schools.

Other districts around the nation have rebuilt and restored their public school library programs, Former Superintendent of Boston Public Schools (BPS), Dr. Brenda Cassellius worked in the district for three years to restore its libraries. School librarians do much more than just help children check out books, she noted; they’re media technology specialists, and provide social service support for families who may not have internet at home.

“The library is the hub of learning in a school environment, and certified librarians know how to curate that learning experience and also offer their expertise to curriculum development, materials, and resourcing to teachers,” Cassellius told the Capital-Star. “They’re just an absolute glue to the learning experience that children have.”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

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