Where Are All the District’s Textbooks?

by Christopher Paslay


At a recent School Reform Commission meeting, a freshman at Sayre High School complained to District officials about her school’s lack of textbooks (Shortage of books plagues some city schools, Inquirer, 11/20/08).  She explained that each of her classes had only one set of books, and that she wasn’t issued an extra copy to take home.  As a result, it was difficult for her to complete projects and homework assignments.


Dr. Ackerman, the District’s superintendent, was extremely frustrated by the news.


“Every year, this is a big issue,” Ackerman said. “We spend millions of dollars, and where are the textbooks?”


Ackerman insisted she would immediately address the situation, and planned to ask schools how they’ve been spending their money set aside for textbooks.


If my experience at Swenson Arts and Technology is similar to other schools across the city, Dr. Ackerman need not waste her time asking principals about textbook money.  Funds are properly being spent on books; during the 2005-06 school year, after Paul Vallas spent millions making sure every classroom had more than an ample amount of instructional materials, textbooks arrived at city schools by the truckload. 


No, the problem isn’t money.  It’s what the students do with the books once they are issued to them.


So where are all the District’s textbooks?  They are everywhere, to answer Dr. Ackerman’s question bluntly.  They are under student’s beds and in the backs of their closets.  They are stranded at their mother’s house in Fishtown, or are sitting in the basement of  their father’s place in West Oak Lane.  Some are at the apartment of a one-time boyfriend, girlfriend, or significant other; some are riding merrily on the back of the Market-Frankford El.      


I kid you not.  I’ve had all manner of relatives return lost books to me at school: grandmothers, aunts, uncles, stepfathers.  It’s amazing how a child can make his or her textbook magically disappear, vanish into thin air like an illusion by Criss Angel. 


Where are all the textbooks?  Right where the students leave them.  They go into an academic hibernation of sort, not to return until June when teachers start demanding them back.  Of course, not all textbooks come out of hibernation.  A good portion of them disappear for good.  Gone.  Poof.  Outta here.  Down the rabbit hole and into the Bermuda Triangle. 


Getting textbooks back from students is an extremely trying endeavor.  Too many Philadelphia teenagers are woefully irresponsible.  Why?  Because they are conditioned to eternal accommodations, used to being given second and third and fourth chances.  So the first time you say, Please return your textbook by Friday, you only get about 20% cooperation.  Kids know that they’ll get a second and third opportunity (it’s the Philadelphia School District way), so they blow-off the first request to return school property.


Committed teachers like myself don’t allow these roadblocks to stand in our way.  We keep after our students like madmen (or madwomen): Please return your textbook, please return your textbook, please return your textbook . . . until we make that coveted breakthrough; at this point we get about two-thirds of the books back.       


By now the year is almost over; at this point we must start calling parents.  Calling and pleading with mom and dad to have their son or daughter return their $75 American Literature Text ASAP: Johnny MUST return the book or there will be a hold put on his records.   


And still we don’t get them all back; in the poorer schools, where a large number of students transfer or metaphorically drop off the face of the planet, teachers can’t even get half of them back.      


So textbooks die and go to textbook heaven.  When you figure that there are over 167,000 students in the Philadelphia School District (and that each text is worth close to $70), it’s no surprise that hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of textbooks are lost every year in the city.


So what do schools do?  They do what Sayre High School is doing: They conserve by keeping one full class set of texts in the classroom and not allowing students to take them home.  This way, none get lost or damaged.  Homework assignments and projects are given through supplemental materials or photocopies.  And if a student absolutely needs to take a book home, he or she can sign out a copy and promise to return it after a period of time.   


Where do all the textbooks go?  Ask the thousands of Philadelphia teenagers who fail to return them.  As the saying goes: If you don’t use it, you lose it. 


Tragically, this seems to be the case in too many Philadelphia public schools.