Olney: School District Budget Crisis Worsens Central High’s Digital Divide

Tim McKenna, president of Central High School, said many students at his school do not have access to computers at home

With its third week of school in full swing, Central High School‘s hallways are abuzz with student activity. Skateboarders perform tricks in one hallway, fervent studiers pour over textbooks in another. In many ways, this public high school feels like a college campus, with its freedom and vibrant eclecticism. But for as much activity fills Central’s halls, an eerie silence enfolds the school’s modern two-story library.

When faced with a $304 million budget deficit this past summer, the School District of Philadelphia began cutting its staff of librarians, nurses, administrative assistants and teachers. Of the district’s 219 elementary, middle and high schools and approximately 137,000 students, only 15 librarians remain, according to Fernando Gallard, district spokesman.

A certified librarian is required to loan out books, so most of the district’s libraries have closed. This has left many students without a crucial educational resource.

According to Central’s president, Tim McKenna, the school is “BYOD”: Bring Your Own Devices. Students are welcomed to use smartphones, tablets and laptops in school and connect to the Wi-Fi network. But for those without access, Barnwell Library was the safety net.

“Not all students here have access to technology and that was a bridge that has now been closed at this point, or at least limited,” said McKenna.

In June, the White House released its Broadband Report concluding that, despite growing Internet and smartphone access, a distinct connectivity gap still persists in this country. Disparity is especially present between income and racial groups.

According to the School District, approximately 62 percent of Central’s student body is “economically disadvantaged.”

“There’s definitely a digital divide at Central,” said Rachel Toliver, an English teacher at Central. “I had a number of kids who didn’t have access to the computers.”

Toliver said she also knows of instances when students came from neighborhood schools to Central and required the extra attention. Before her position was eliminated, librarian Loretta Burton used her tech savvy to bring these students up to speed and excel in classes.

Before Barnwell Library closed, the state-of-the-art place was a “safe space,” Toliver said. Even beyond the resources it offered, the teacher said she knew of students who ate lunch there frequently. McKenna also referred to the library as the “hub of activity” in the school.

Its absence is tangible. During free periods, students congregate around the library’s doors, peering in occasionally.

According to McKenna, the library used to receive approximately 800 visits each day before the closure. The library will soon be staffed by alumni volunteers but only certified librarians can loan out books. The library will be opened in a limited capacity – only three of the five days, he said.

“This year has been tough [and] the resources are lacking,” said McKenna, who is now in his eighth year as a principle for the SDP. 

And with resources lacking, Toliver sees the demise of the district.

This handout, available in Barnwell Library, outlined the numerous effects of the School District of Philadelphia's continued budget deficit and the state's refusal to release funds.
This handout, available in Barnwell Library, outlined the numerous effects of the School District of Philadelphia’s continued budget deficit and the state’s refusal to release funds.

“We have less of everything, yet more and more we’re being ‘held accountable’ to keystone assessments,” she said. “I definitely see [charter schools] as just a money maker. I mean, public schools have been the bedrock of the country and charter schools are just a question of branding. Charter schools and other entities proliferate on the idea that students are failing or schools are failing.”

But Central has been consistently ranked as one of the Top Ten best public schools in the state. Its demise may not come at all but Toliver said it’s the students who suffer most.

“A lot of kids in schools don’t have very much stability at home,” she said. “When there’s that void of stability at school, it’s anxiety-inducing.”

Both Toliver and McKenna separately agreed that the only solution – as multifaceted as it is – is to re-prioritize state spending.

“There’s a ton of money behind the school closure initiative [and the] privatization of education on a systemic level…the same people that are diagnosing the problem are also making money off the solution,” Toliver said.

McKenna said he’s hopeful that Gov. Tom Corbett unfreezes the $45 million the SDP has requested, and other funding streams open up for schools.


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