Updated Jan. 14

After years of effort by volunteers to relaunch the library at Fairmount’s Bache-Martin Elementary, no one was exactly sure how the students would react when it actually opened. They’re kids, after all — would they even appreciate the hard-won rows of reading material?

To the pleasant surprise of the parents and teachers who put in the work, the young students are obsessed with their new resource.

“Kids are walking around the hallways with books,” principal Mark Vivitsky told Billy Penn. “They’re secretly going back to make additional visits; they’re trying to convince substitutes that it’s library day when it’s not.

“The kids,” he said, “are literally tearing down the walls to get back in there.”

Before it was restored this month — the grand opening is set for Monday, Jan. 14, with Mayor Jim Kenney and Councilman Darrell Clarke set to attend — the library at Bache-Martin had been shuttered for nearly five years, a victim of sweeping budget cuts. And it’s far from alone.

In a city with more than 200 public schools, just 40 of them currently have functioning libraries — many of which are staffed by volunteers.

Having a school library has been proven to be an important asset to students. Research conducted in Colorado shows those who had access to one scored much better on standardized tests. The library boost applied across all income levels, including with kids who were experiencing poverty.

Which is why Tara Desmond was crushed when she discovered Bache-Martin’s was out of commission when she enrolled her 5-year-old there — and why she led the effort to get it back on track.

Credit: Courtesy Jerilyn Dressler

Parents pick up the school district’s slack

It was nine years ago that Desmond first saw the inside of the school, when she strolled into an open house with her newborn daughter strapped to her hip — and at that point the library was up and running fine.

Then came a big crunch for the Philadelphia School District. In the 2010-2011 school year, more than 3,000 positions needed to be eliminated. Libraries took the brunt of the slashing.

“[Budget cuts] forced many of our school leaders to make difficult decisions,” said School District of Philadelphia spokesperson Lee Whack. “School funding was cut in general, and school administrators made decisions based on their priority needs.”

Desmond found that unacceptable. “That was crushing for me,” she said. “It’s been embarrassing for me to say my kid goes to school without a library.”

In 2017, she and other members of the local Friends of Bache-Martin nonprofit made it their mission to reopen the library. It took two years and $90,000, but they got the job done.

How? The key, those involved said, was community organization.

Parents set up countless fundraisers and asked for help from organizations around the city. They raked in a massive donation from an anonymous Bache-Martin alumni, plus tens of thousands of dollars donated in-person and through Facebook. At one fundraising event alone, the group wrangled $16,000.

Over time, they accumulated thousands of donated books from other schools, like St. Joe’s Prep. Residents were always eager to stop by and volunteer to set up shelves or catalog books, said Friends of Bache-Martin President Jerilyn Dressler.

“Things roll in, and it’s really remarkable,” Dressler told Billy Penn. “Random checks from people in the neighborhood pop up, saying they just want to support the school however they can.”

Of course, Fairmount is among Philly’s wealthier neighborhoods. Residents there are more likely to have resources to give.

In their tour of the city, Bache-Martin parents stumbled upon other schools that made their libraries work with fewer resources. Fairhill’s Julia de Burgos Elementary School, for example, cut costs by employing a strong base of volunteers.

Credit: Courtesy Jerilyn Dressler

10,000 books and an online catalog

Looking at the Bache-Martin library now, you couldn’t tell that it’s situated in a struggling urban school district. You certainly wouldn’t think it had recently closed due to a lack of funding.

The Fairmount elementary school’s library is a high-tech operation — it contains 10,000 books, catalogued in a cloud-based library management system. There’s a part-time library coordinator staffing the operation, and she uses handheld scanners to help kids check out books. Each book has a barcode, and each student is listed in an online roster that’s connected to the system.

Now that it’s fully functional, parents are met with a new challenge: keeping it that way. Desmond’s biggest fear moving forward is that in future years, the volunteers won’t be able to maintain the literary resource.

“There’s this exuberant excitement about it, and there’s also a pit in my stomach,” she said. “The idea of a couple more years passing by and this falling by the wayside again because we don’t have the resources again is crushing to me.”

“It’s also a huge motivator,” Desmond added, “because we feel so determined to keep it alive.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...