Front Page of the Daily News: $124M spent : Where are schools’ books?
By MENSAH M. DEAN Philadelphia Daily News
THE Philadelphia School District has a severe textbook shortage despite having spent $124 million on books since the 2004-05 school year, the Daily News has learned.
In many cases, teachers have one set of books for five classes, so students must share and can’t take books home to study.
"In my English 4 class, we had a grand total of two textbooks," said Dahrell Carriker, a junior at Sayre High. "There aren’t any underneath our desks, there are none on the shelves."
At West Philadelphia High, the situation isn’t much better.
"I don’t get to take none of my books home," said freshman Aleema Williams, 16.
"My English teacher said she don’t trust us with the books because we might damage them – ’cause they’re already messed up – plus there’s not enough."
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who started her job in June, is troubled by the book situation.
"With the amount of dollars that we are investing, every child should have a book," she said recently.
The district’s central administration has spent $94 million on textbooks in the last five years and given the remaining $30 million to schools to spend, according to Ackerman, who provided the figures in response to a Daily News inquiry.
She said the district must do a better job of tracking the books that it purchases and is, in fact, working towards implementing a book distribution-and-tracking system by this spring when books are to be purchased for next fall.
Ackerman said she did not know the full scope of the problem, but she contended that students losing or damaging books contributes to the shortage.
She said that she will soon begin holding principals, teachers and students accountable for books.
"This is crazy and I am so frustrated and upset about it," Ackerman said. "I’m not going to continue to let the system bleed money around textbooks."
Students – at least those who want to study – are upset, also. They know their plight is not the norm in Pennsylvania, nor in the rest of the United States.
At a South Bronx, N.Y., high school last month, three West Philadelphia High students saw this when they learned how the other half lives – and studies.
The Philly students, members of Philadelphia Student Union, an activist group, toured the Urban Assembly School for Careers in Sports because it is small and successful.
They were impressed by many things, including that the Bronx school – though in a low-income community – has enough textbooks for students to use in class and at home.
West Philadelphia High, an aging brick compound at 47th and Walnut streets, is so shy of books, said the students who visited the Bronx, that they plan to put on a fashion show in March to raise book money.
"I’m envious towards them ’cause they got all the books that they need and they like being in school and they got all the different things that we don’t got," senior Mason Tyer, 17, said of the Bronx students.
"I only get to take my biology book home because there are only 10 people in that class," said junior Sadae Canty, 17. "But the rest of the classes, you don’t take nothing home because it’s only one set."
Though students returned to school Sept. 4, it was only this month that the book situation got the undivided attention of the school district’s leadership.
Students, again from Philadelphia Student Union, signed up to speak about the issue during the Nov. 19 meeting of the School Reform Commission.
"We’ve been waiting patiently but our patience is running out," Tykia Hicks, a ninth-grader from Sayre High School, told the officials. "PSU has fought long and hard, and we respectfully demand our books and materials."
Ackerman said she thought there were enough books so all students would at least have them in class – if not to take home. That meager expectation is all the district’s tight budget can afford this year, said Ackerman, who pledged to work toward having enough books next year for students to take home.
In the meantime, a growing number of students and teachers have begun grumbling that the district’s book shortage is directly linked to the high failure rate at dozens of district schools, especially at the middle- and high-school levels.
"How do you give homework when a kid can’t refer to a textbook?" asked Keith Newman, a district teacher for 14 years, who teaches ninth-grade science and social studies at Morrison Elementary, in Olney.
Newman, 52, should know. His four science classes use a textbook called, "Inside the Restless Earth." It’s a good book, in Newman’s estimation. But he has only 44 books for 107 students.
"We have to enable students to have resources at home every night," Newman said. "We have to do that. Asking kids to study and succeed without a book at home is like asking a mechanic to repair your car without tools."
Carriker, the junior from Sayre, contacted the Daily News shortly after a September melee between Philadelphia police and Sayre students resulted in the arrest of 20 teens.
He said that the trouble that day resulted, in part, from students’ frustration about conditions at the West Philadelphia school, including the lack of basic resources such as textbooks.
Rodney Bolden, a senior at Fels High School, is all too aware of the book problem, too. He hopes to be accepted to either Temple or Delaware State University next year, but knows that he will have to get there without full access to his textbooks.
"It’s having a hard impact on me because I got homework tonight and I needed a textbook but I don’t have one, just a notebook," he said during a recent interview.
Alphonzo Baban, 17, a senior at Strawberry Mansion High School, said that students in his English 4 class must share books in class and also are not permitted to take books home.
"I’m just used to it now, I wouldn’t even think about asking [to take a book home] because I know the response," he said.
Baban, who this fall has had to tackle the Old English of Beowulf, feels tackled himself by his school’s shortage of books.
"I just started thinking about my school, questioning my school instead of questioning me," he said, "because if I don’t have everything that I need, how am I going to get my work done?"
It’s difficult to shut the book on textbook shortages, said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, a Washington nonprofit that advocates for the nation’s largest urban school systems.
"The solutions are not inexpensive: not allowing books to be taken home, which is not good educationally," he said, "or overpurchasing books to cover the fact that a certain percentage will be lost."
You lose it, you buy it?
Ackerman said that the book shortage problem is at least twofold: The central administration has no way to keep track of books once they have been distributed to schools, while the long-standing policy that requires students to pay for lost and damaged books is not being enforced.
"I think we have no real textbook-management system, and I knew that coming in," she said.
"We don’t know what happens once books get to the school. They just order books each year. . . . There’s no tracking system to let us know what happened with the books we have ordered."
To get a handle on things, the district has been researching the use of a distribution-and-tracking system for textbooks, and recently the procurement department identified a company to handle the implementation of such a system, spokesman Vincent Thompson said.
He declined to release the name of the company because no contract has been formally presented to the School Reform Commission, which must grant its approval.
As for holding students accountable for lost and damaged books, Ackerman said that the time for such action has come.
Since 1999, the district has had a textbook policy which clearly spells out the consequences for failing to return books. The policy, however, is all but ignored by principals and teachers, Ackerman said.
The policy states that students can be charged for the cost, be made to perform services for schools, have a report card withheld or lose privileges such as the right to participate in sports, the prom, graduation or other extracurricular activities if they lose or damage books.
"I have to have a way to hold principals accountable, principals will need a way to hold teachers accountable and teachers will have to hold students accountable," Ackerman said.
"But this business of just letting this go hit or miss is unacceptable. That money could be spent on other programs." *