Lafayette Elementary School, in upper Northwest Washington, has one of the largest library collections in the District’s public school system, with more than 28,000 books filling stacks on two floors. Drew Elementary, 12 miles away and east of the Anacostia River, has one of the city’s smallest inventories: 300 catalogued books lining shelves along two of the library’s walls.

Reading and literacy are high priorities for the urban school district, as proficiency rates for its poorest students dwell below the averages for major cities. But the District dedicates no annual funding for school-library collections, instead relying on the largesse of parents or the kindness of strangers to stock its shelves through donations.

As a result, an unequal system has developed.

As of January 2014, 22 percent of D.C. public school students attended a school with a library that had fewer than 10 books per student, and 17 percent of students went to schools with more than 30 books per student, according to an analysis of a school-by-school report on library collections obtained by The Washington Post. An oft-used national standard is 20 books per student.

[ Read the D.C. Public Schools library report. ]

The reading proficiency rate for poor students was 37 percent last year, almost unchanged since 2008 despite intensive reforms.

The D.C. school system has invested in literacy coaches, new curriculum, mentors, professional development and digital books. It has put millions of dollars into smaller book collections inside classrooms to help children learn to read. But some advocates are concerned that the District has not made a bigger investment in a more old-fashioned approach: library books.

“Access to books really does matter. It’s common sense,” said Ann Carlson Weeks, associate dean at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies, who served on a library task force for the school system in 2012. “If kids have more books to read and they are encouraged, they are going to read more.”

School library investments have been rebounding in many districts after recession-era cuts, but they vary dramatically across the country. More than half of school libraries in California lack even a part-time state-certified school librarian, compared with about 20 percent nationwide, federal data shows. Urban districts are less likely to fund collections in every school.

Researchers have documented a stark difference in the number of books available outside of the classroom to children from rich and poor families, with children from low-income families typically having fewer books at home and less access to public libraries or bookstores.

Students at many D.C. schools have never had a full-time librarian or an updated book collection, and not all schools have permitted students to check books out of the library.

District officials say the library program has improved substantially in recent years, with a $3.4 million investment in new books in late 2013, nearly three dozen library modernizations, and more librarians in schools and the central office. But Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson told D.C. Council members at a recent oversight hearing that it will take more time and outside support to make all the needed investments.

Isa Khokhar leaves the school library with his checked-out books as librarian Sue Bloom checks out books for Elizabeth Blenke and Adrian Malone after a kindergarten class library visit at Peabody Elementary School in Washington. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

“In the same way that our buildings have been crumbling for 40 years because we have not been maintaining them, our libraries have been faltering,” she said.

The report on each school’s book collections was prepared by a vendor in January 2014, following the infusion of new books. It found that the District still has a deficit of 322,000 books to meet a goal of 20 items per student.

On average, students in D.C. public elementary schools meet that standard, but the average masks a wide disparity. Collection sizes varied from 59 books per student at Oyster Elementary — a bilingual school in Ward 2 with a Spanish-English library developed with support from parents — to two books per student at Drew Elementary, a Ward 7 school with about 200 students and no librarian this year. The report showed that higher-poverty schools were more likely to have smaller collections. It also showed that most elementary schools have an average collection that is at least 15 years old, far older than the students enrolled.

Drew Principal Na’imah Salahuddin said her school has a strong focus on literacy and that students have access to thousands more books through classroom libraries, digital books and partnerships with community organizations. Drew had a double-digit gain on the city’s standardized reading test last year. “We are confident we are meeting students’ needs and building fluent, confident readers who comprehend text,” she said.

Jennifer Boudrye, director of library programs for D.C. schools, said the report is inaccurate because it relied on books recorded in the electronic catalogue last year, not necessarily the books actually on shelves. She said librarians are beginning to conduct more careful inventories.

Bare shelves at schools

The lack of dedicated funding for books in the District has posed repeated challenges and political flash points for the system.

In 2012, city officials cut the ribbon on a $62 million renovation of Anacostia High School with a new media center and empty shelves.

In 2013, Peter MacPherson, a D.C. parent and library activist, threatened to protest at the ribbon-cutting for the new Dunbar High School. After a $122 million modernization, “they did not even have a copy of Paul Dunbar’s poetry to put out,” MacPherson said. Officials ultimately articulated a plan to fund a collection.

At C.W. Harris Elementary School in Southeast, where 70 percent of students are “at risk,” because they are homeless or in foster care or qualify for food stamps or welfare, librarian Sheila Gaskins said she has no books from the frequently requested “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series and no resources to fill in the gaps. “I can’t remember the last time I had a budget,” she said.

At Lafayette, the Home and School Association has provided up to $10,000 a year to the librarian so she can keep the book collection fresh. “If ‘Harry Potter’ is the ‘it’ book, and copies are getting worn, she can go out and buy more,” said Hope Scheller, co-president of the association.

Other districts in the Washington area maintain their library collections with annual funds, ranging from $4 per student this year in Prince George’s County to $21 per student in Arlington County.

Virginia guidelines call for a minimum of 10 books per student in elementary schools and at least 15,000 titles for high schools that enroll at least 1,500 students. Maryland recommends at least 12,000 “library media items” for elementary schools, 15,000 for middle schools and 18,000 for high schools.

More than 90 percent of traditional public schools in the United States reported having a library in the 2011-2012 school year, and two-thirds of the schools had full-time library media specialists, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Libraries are far rarer in charter schools, which have more freedom to structure budgets and, often, more limited space. In the District, 43 out of 100 charter school campuses that responded to a 2014 charter board survey said they had stand-alone libraries. Dozens more said they invest instead in “classroom libraries.”

School libraries play a different role than the smaller classroom collections designed to support reading instruction, educators say. School librarians have a mission to teach information literacy. And books in schoolwide libraries are not sorted according to reading ability; students are encouraged to explore their interests and read just for pleasure.

A struggle for resources

Funding equitable programs across city schools has been an expensive challenge for the District, particularly because many schools have low enrollment. In 2012, Henderson eliminated funding for librarians in schools that have fewer than 300 students and made the position optional for larger schools.

A library task force — organized after parents protested — cited research in 22 states showing that a certified librarian media specialist and a high-quality collection is “a significant factor” influencing student achievement, literacy development and college readiness.

Funding for at least a part-time librarian in every school was restored in 2013-2014. And in August 2013, Henderson called for a sustained “multi-year investment” in staffing and resources and announced that some surplus funds — ultimately $3.4 million — would be spent on library collections. This year, all but eight of the 111 D.C. public schools have a librarian. But no new investments were made in books.

Boudrye, the director of library programs, said one of her primary goals is promoting equity in access to books. That includes seeking out new philanthropic partners and developing a partnership with D.C. public libraries so that children can check out public library books online but have them delivered at school, for example.

She is also trying to sell principals on the potential value of libraries, so they will be more likely to spend discretionary funds on them.

The library at Peabody Elementary School on Capitol Hill, for 230 students in preschool and kindergarten, offers a look at what school libraries can do.

Librarian Sue Bloom designed a collection that is easy for young children to explore, with books sorted by popular topics, such as trucks and farms and dinosaurs.

Bloom works with classroom teachers to supplement their thematic lessons. And when children come to her for their allotted 45 minutes a week, they have story time but also choose activities that build reading and writing skills.

Children use puppets to retell stories or post pictures on a felt “story board” and link them together through a narrative. At a “discovery center,” they can read nonfiction books about nature and touch an actual worm. They also practice writing their own books, even as they are still learning the alphabet.

Her library — an airy, light-filled attic room — got a facelift in 2006 from a public-private partnership that renovated and stocked libraries at eight schools on Capitol Hill.

“I was swimming in books,” she said. Grants, PTA funds and book fairs have helped her fund new books since. “But I know there are librarians who are not in my situation.”

Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.