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August 20, 2014

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In Philadelphia, School Librarians Still In Flux

Philly skyline In Philadelphia, School Librarians Still In FluxAlready hobbled, Philadelphia schools are facing their first day with fewer school librarians—continuing a trend in the metropolitan school district and the state of Pennsylvania as well. Of the approximately 22 remaining certified school librarians working in the Philadelphia school district, some are not returning to their school librarian positions. Some are being sent back as prep teachers, with at least one returning as an ESOL teacher, and another as a classroom teacher, according to sources close to the matter.

These changes come as the district faced a $304 million shortfall in its budget for the 2013–2014 school year. The city agreed to borrow $50 million just to get schools open as Superintendent William R. Hite had threatened to delay their opening without those funds.

In addition, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC) passed a measure [PDF] during a contentious meeting on August 16 allowing principals to hire back staff based on the needs of the school—and not based on seniority. Parents and educators both voiced opposition to the measure by the SRC, which replaced the school board in 2001 with appointees from the governor and the mayor.

“I am heartbroken that we are having a conversation today because our government has abandoned an investment in public education,” says Daren Spielman, president and CEO of the non-profit Philadelphia Education Fund, who gave his comments during the meeting.

How school librarians may fare in the coming days is unclear. At least one school librarian whose position was transferred from an elementary school to a high school was told librarians may be hired back should the $50 million came through. Still, this is in a district that saw assistant principals, secretaries, school nurses, and guidance counselors—among other staffers—laid off at the end of the 2012–2013 school year.

“Apparently, they pretty much let principals decide how funds will be allocated in each building,” says Deb Kachel, co-chairperson of the legislation committee for the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association (PSLA). “So it’s very uneven which schools will have librarians and which won’t.”

Pennsylvania saw a 6 percent decrease from the number of school librarians working in K–12 schools between the 2011–2012 and 2012–2013 school years, according to statistics from the PSLA. For example, Harrisburg, PA, which had eliminated its certified school librarians for the 2012–2013 school year, has now eliminated all library staff as well—and is hoping to use volunteers to run its school libraries for the new school year.

Each year, PSLA runs a staffing survey across its 500 school districts starting in the fall. Eileen Kern, PSLA president, says she does not have a feeling how the numbers will come out this year. But while she sees urban areas, including Philadelphia, losing school librarian positions, other areas are also suffering, with 62 percent of school librarians in the state serving more than one school.

“That’s pretty alarming to me,” says Kerns, who nonetheless sees the urban school districts being hit the hardest. “I know it’s a drastic situation in Philadelphia.”

Carol Heinsdorf agrees. As former president of the Association of Philadelphia School Librarians and a national board certified teacher, she is watching the situation unfold in her city wondering how these changes will, in the end, affect the 136,000 school children set to head to classes next month.

She adds, “The ability of school librarians in Philadelphia to work effectively to promote academic achievement is wiped out.”

Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business and technology, and is the recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism. She can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.

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