Book-Starved Philly Schools Forced to Fend for Themselves

The School District of Philadelphia does not have enough books for students.

And it doesn’t seem to care.

The district does not supply some schools with basic necessities like toilet paper and textbooks. Yet it does nothing to direct tens of thousands of books donated to Philly schools each year to places where they are needed most.

"The district does not track donations," district spokeswoman Raven Hill told Watchdog.

And so, the school district has no idea where donated books and materials go, has no clue what’s coming into schools, and offers no solution to mend broken pipelines into classrooms. This is going on while the district sits on a pile of thousands of books collecting dust in its basement.

Facing an $80 million budget deficit next year, the district has been unable to fix its systemic shortage of books and supplies, but outside groups have been stocking the shelves of Philadelphia schools for years.

Despite donations from organizations like BookMentors, First Book, the Philadelphia READS book bank and even the Philadelphia Eagles, schools are still short.

Unlike the school district, most of those private groups keep detailed records of where everything goes.

“We owe it to our donors to be responsible stewards,” said Carolyn Ashburn, chair of First Book Philadelphia. “We ask that the books be integrated into learning and then go home with the kids so they can start their own mini-libraries at home.”

The Philadelphia READS book bank supplies almost 100,000 books to city schools each year. The Eagles Book Mobile travels to hundreds of Philadelphia area schools and distributes free books to kids. In 2014, First Book donated 42,000 books to 34 schools and learning organizations around the city.

But if you want help in Philadelphia schools, it seems you have to go out and get it yourself.

Connections are typically made through online applications that individual schools must initiate, a common thread among similar groups looking to lend a hand.

BookMentors is an online exchange that links donors with teachers looking for specific books. The nonprofit has assisted more than 200 teachers, more than half of whom have made multiple requests for materials. So far, more than 100 individual donors have donated more than $9,000 in books for schools in high-poverty areas around the country. In Philadelphia, BookMentors recently worked with Gen. Philip Kearny School to fill a request for One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, a novel that takes place amid the historic events of 1968.

Because of cuts, Essence Allen wears several hats at Kearny, acting as the school’s dean of students and as a special education teacher.

“It’s difficult, but we’re fortunate because we do work with a lot of community partners,” she said of the challenge of supplying her students. “We have been really blessed with using community resources and tapping into other organizations and getting them to donate and support us in different ways. I’m sure that’s not the case across all district schools.”

Allen said that because the district does not offer enough help in getting more books to classrooms, school-level administrators have had to look for new opportunities and they literally fend for themselves.

“It has to be part of the platform now for any leader in any school,” she said. “You have to reach out and find alternative ways to support the students.”

Because it’s clear the School District of Philadelphia hasn’t been much help at all.

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