Budget crisis shutters libraries at 2 top schools

Posted: September 14, 2013

When Central High School opened its new library in 2005 - a $4.5 million research and media hub funded by alumni - Apple named it a national model.

Students visited it more than 147,000 times last year, more than 800 visits a day.

Masterman School's library, also bolstered by fund-raising, bustled with students, too, from early morning till late afternoon.

But now both libraries - the academic hearts of two of Philadelphia's most prestigious schools - have been shuttered.

They are the latest victims of the schools' financial crisis. The district did not fund librarians - so principals at Central, Masterman, and any number of other schools had to cut those positions, along with counselors, assistant principals, and teachers.

"I'm going to tear up," Masterman principal Marjorie Neff said at her desk Thursday as she explained the loss. "The library is the center of our instructional program here. People think about things like the library and counselors as extras. They are not extras."

Central's principal, Timothy McKenna, called the library the "hub of learning" at his 2,400-student school, but said the future was beyond his ability to protect.

"A librarian was never even in the mix for us," he said. "In the past, we had a lot more decision-making power. And this year, it was limited."

Over the last 20 years, the School District has lost many of its certified librarians as money got tighter. In 1992, there were 176; by 2011, only 65. After this year's budget cuts - the most severe the district has faced - only 15 librarians remain, according to district spokesman Fernando Gallard.

Some schools have staffed their library with other employees, though most have lost so many other positions this year that finding an available staffer was difficult.

"It's borderline immoral," said Louis Borda, a Masterman social studies teacher and parent. "We can't be expected to have a school without a library. I would have reconsidered keeping my kids in the school if I knew it was going to be this bad."

'Biggest resource'

Principals at Central and Masterman, magnet schools that take in top students from across the city, are trying to figure out how to reopen the libraries in a limited way. Teachers still will take classes to the libraries. But the libraries won't be able to circulate books or offer students the expertise of their former librarians.

"She was really the biggest resource in the library," Evelyn Tsisin, a senior at Masterman, said of librarian Bernadette Kearney.

Tsisin and Katherine Loboda, also a senior, said Kearney helped them find material on their research topics, told them where to find books they needed, kept them informed about databases, and suggested other libraries to visit for additional material.

The principal, Neff, said Kearney also worked with teachers to supply appropriate materials for their lessons and ran student groups, including a book club - Ink Drinkers - and a student library advisory board. The library was open from an hour before school until an hour after school, and was filled.

For many of Masterman's 1,200 students, the library also offered a quiet place to learn and study during lunch periods. Masterman, which has fifth to 12th grades, is crowded, so much so that some students eat lunch in the hallways. When the library was open, 50 students would find study refuge there each lunch period.

On Thursday, Tsisin, of the Far Northeast, and Loboda, of Center City, sneaked into the library and grabbed a table behind some bookshelves, hoping they wouldn't be discovered.

"This is the first time we've had such a great library, and now we can't use it," Loboda said. "I don't think the books will be in circulation anymore. It's a shame they're going to be sitting here collecting dust on the shelves."

Masterman, the top-performing academic school in Pennsylvania, two years ago received a grant of $18,270 from the Community Design Collaborative to upgrade its library, Neff said. The school held a silent auction and raised $40,000 to remodel the space, with the district providing free labor.

Parents are upset about the closure. "It's very hard after devoting 15 years of a lot of energy and time to the public school system," said Heidi Segall Levy, an architect at the Community Design Collaborative, whose son, Eli, is Masterman student body president. "It just feels like we're being let down."

Neff understands.

"It feels like our ability to provide a quality education for kids is being chipped away at," she said. "Every year for the past two years, we tried to adjust a little bit more. This year, we just couldn't adjust. What goes on in the classroom will still be wonderful, but all the supports that make it so rich are not there this year."

Parents, too, are trying to figure out how to get students some use of the library, Neff said. She has offered to be the new faculty adviser to the Ink Drinkers. And Kearney, the former librarian, who now works at Childs School, has started a blog to advise Masterman students on great books and databases from afar.

'Surreal'

At Central, students and staff also are upset.

"It's surreal that so many things are in danger and so many things are being cut," said Robert Gallante, a Central senior from South Philadelphia, who misses librarian Loretta Burton's guidance.

Burton, who now works at Mayfair School as a prep teacher, said many students don't have Internet or computers at home and needed the library.

"When I came in at 7:15, I had kids waiting for me," she said.

At Central, pupils had access to more than 20,000 volumes, 60 computers, and several printers and scanners, she said. The library also has a room designated for college admissions officers to meet students, a staff lounge, and a home for Central's extensive archives. Founded in 1836, it is the second-oldest public high school in the nation.

McKenna said he would bring Burton back if he got more funding. "That is the goal," he said.

For Central alums, whose generosity funded the library, the news has been particularly painful.

"We continue to fund-raise but it's difficult," said Richard Prinz, a 1959 graduate and retired wealth manager from PNC Bank. "When you go to someone, they ask, why are they contributing when the school isn't being supported by the district for its needs?"


Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq.

|
|
|
|
|