February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Philadelphia Launches $30 Million Literacy Push

The School District of Philadelphia (SDP) has launched a $30 million early literacy initiative intended to ensure that by 2020, all students are reading on grade level when they reach fourth grade. Focusing on the district’s 48,000 kindergarten through third-grade students, the effort began this summer, with about 700 teachers and principals from 40 schools attending a week-long series of workshops.

Dovetailing with the city’s READ! by 4th campaign, led by the Free Library of Philadelphia, the new three-year program will include teacher training, on-site support for teachers, and in-class libraries, with books students can check out selected with an eye to their reading abilities.

Philadelphia_calloutv2Multiple local groups are contributing funding for the initiative, including the William Penn Foundation, which has promised $6 million; the Lenfest Foundation, which is putting in $4.5 million; and the school district. The Fund for the School District of Philadelphia also plans to raise an additional $3.4 million.

“We are excited to support this project because it provides the opportunity for teachers to enhance their literacy skills throughout the year,” Stacy E. Holland, executive director of the Lenfest Foundation, says in a press release. “This project is critical to the long-term academic success of our children and we are proud to serve as a part of a collaborative effort that has committed time, energy and resources to support the advancement of a citywide literacy agenda.”

Some people, however, are raising questions about the materials that will be provided to teachers to support the reading goals. Debbie Grill, a former school librarian with the district and a member of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, says she wonders who may be selecting the materials for the in-class libraries and how diverse they will be. The district has not yet released details on how many books will be included in the classroom sets, nor how they will be chosen. (Multiple calls and email requests to speak with district officials and the Lenfest Foundation were not returned.) Grill says that in her experience, classroom libraries tend to have about 30 to 40 books and usually include multiple copies, not 30 to 40 titles.

“Classroom libraries are wonderful, but they don’t take the place of a school library and don’t provide a wide range of interest levels,” she says. “You need thousands and thousands of books to address a child’s interests. The classroom library only serves the children in that room.”

Funding for school library services in SDP has shrunk by more than 90 percent over the past 10 years, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The district reported spending nearly $9 million for the 2002–03 school year on school library services, but that figure had dropped to just under $817,000 for 2013–14. By comparison, spending on legal services has increased nearly 86 percent over that same time period, from more than $4.9 million in 2002–03 to $9.1 million for  2013–14.

“At the end of the [2014–15] school year, we were down to 10 certified school librarians [in Philadelphia],” says Debra Kachel, who teaches in Antioch University’s library media certification program and sits on the legislation committee for the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association. “I think one or two are retiring, only a few were still in libraries. It’s, to say the least, very tenuous.”

Like Grill, Kachel is concerned about the classroom libraries and their ability to reach students of all reading levels and even abilities. Fewer than 50 percent of Philadelphia’s public school students are at grade level on math or reading. Kachel wonders who will ensure the classroom libraries will offer a wide enough range to meet students’ needs, including materials for students reading above grade level and those geared to English language learners.

“I applaud this effort and those who are investing funds to make this happen,” she says. “However, as a former school librarian, I need to say school libraries are a better, more economical way to implement access to books for all grades, not just K–3.”


Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.

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