PARSL in Grid Magazine

Philly school libraries are severely understaffed and underfunded. These organizations are working to change that.

WePAC school team lead Gwen Hayes, executive director Jennifer Leith and program manager Katelin Beck get the Longstreth Elementary School library in order. Photography by Rachael Warriner.


July 31, 2023

The big library — the size of several classrooms — in the Cook-Wissahickon School in Roxborough stands as a monument to activism. Closed for several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the library now serves pre-kindergarteners through middle schoolers with story hours and a robust lending program that enrich the lives of students. Sadly, the library is an exception.

Philadelphia’s lack of school libraries is one of its best-kept, and most devastating, secrets.

“When I talked with people about it at the May Fair in Clark Park, they were shocked,” says Katelin Beck, program manager of the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children (WePAC), an organization that mobilizes volunteers to staff and reopen libraries in public schools. “They assume there’s a library because they grew up with them,” she says.

The Philadelphia Alliance to Restore School Librarians (PARSL), a grassroots group pushing to restore school librarians, notes a startling statistic in its just-published report, “Ensuring Equity and Access to School Librarians and School Library Services in the School District of Philadelphia.” “Two out of three children in Philadelphia cannot read on grade level by fourth grade,” the report says, adding that such youngsters are “six times more likely to drop out of high school.”

That damage can snowball.

There’s a correlation between low literacy and the possibility of future incarceration, notes Jennifer Leith, WePAC’s executive director. In addition, low-literate adults also have more health problems and earn less money than their well-read counterparts, says Reading Partners, a national nonprofit that helps students read on grade level by fourth grade.

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