If you don’t know Brian Roberts, you probably know his company. The Comcast Corp. CEO and his wife, Aileen, have given to various educational causes in the past — including charter schools, universities, and Project HOME.

But the pair had never donated to the school district before Thursday, when they announced a $450,000 gift to the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia.

“We need a vibrant public school district,” Roberts said. “And it’s critical that philanthropy be engaged, but do so in a way that they know where the funds are going.”

Roberts’ gift completed a $3.5 million campaign to put “leveled” books in every one of the district’s K-3 classrooms, capping the drive a year earlier than expected. Because the district met its goal before the 2018 deadline, the Lenfest and William Penn foundations will provide matching funds.

The district has focused much of its effort on early literacy, and the Right Books campaign tied into that goal. Roberts was persuaded to donate after hearing Superintendent William Hite talk about the district’s early literacy push and this targeted campaign to move the work forward.

Roberts believes the district has made meaningful progress in recent years, and he’s encouraged by the administrative continuity. (Hite has now led the district for five years.)

“I think the school district has made real progress, and I think there’s real evidence of that,” Roberts said.

He admits that many of his fellow philanthropists are reluctant to give money to the city’s large, complicated, and oft-troubled school system.

“It is intimidating to an outsider,” he said. “And it’s easy to find other things that are newer and maybe different to want to invest in.”

But he believes the district can make inroads with donors, especially by establishing defined campaigns that show them where exactly their money will land.

In this case, the money will buy books, including some of those foundational texts that first attract kids to reading. Roberts even spotted a childhood favorite of his in the bunch, a book about baseball legend Roberto Clemente.

While the district has promoted the idea of “leveled libraries” in every classroom, some critics say the money should be used to establish more traditional school libraries. After years of phase-outs, Philadelphia’s public schools have just six, full-time librarians.

By Avi Wolfman-ArentSeptember 29, 2017