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Room for Readers

With many school libraries losing ground, librarians are building new connections to literacy—and their communities.

By Sabrina Holcomb

Eric is a man on a mission. “Do you have any books on 50 Cent?” the fifth-grader asks librarian Janice Swieder, his face screwed up in concentration. When she says yes, the look on his face is priceless. “Where is it?” he asks. “Over there, in biographies,” she replies, pointing to a row of bookshelves. “I can get it myself?” he asks incredulously. The act of searching through a bountiful bookshelf with a dazzling range of books and actually choosing one is a big deal for Eric and his classmates. Until recently, the Bradley Elementary School library was a rolling cart Swieder pushed from class to class delivering outdated books pulled from storage boxes.
“I shared a small storage room with two reading teachers,” the New Jersey librarian recalls. “I didn’t have a desk, and the children weren’t allowed inside to get books. The room was used as a dumping ground for supplies and equipment, so we were always climbing over odds and ends. It sounds horrible, but we made it work.”

Sound more like a tale for the Brothers Grimm than 21st century nonfiction? Be that as it may, “we hear book cart and storage closet stories a lot,” says Illinois librarian Linda Lucke, co-chair of NEA’s Libraries, Information Literacy, and Technology Caucus. Now, thanks to the intervention of a savvy new principal and a grant from NEA’s Read Across America Library Awards program, Bradley has a beautiful, fully equipped new media center for the first time in 15 years. But what about those schools without grants or “fairy godmothers”?

According to Lucke, many schools are losing their librarians just when they need them the most. Because of cutbacks and funding decisions, some districts, such as Federal Way in Kings County, Washington, have lost more than half of their credentialed librarians. A quarter of Texas schools don’t have librarians, while in California, only 20 percent of schools have credentialed library media teachers, and some of those are part-time. In Indiana, a 2006 trend analysis reports that book purchases in the state have decreased by 26 percent since 2000.

Even where budgets aren’t being cut, many libraries are still losing ground. With the average cost of a book up 14.4 percent in the past five years, according to a report by the School Library Journal, a school library with a stable budget is buying nearly 15 percent fewer books—and that’s not factoring in the cost of technology. A school must buy at least one book per student per year just to maintain its collection, and two or three per student to actually grow.

While reading is fundamental and literacy a growing focus, school libraries must still compete for precious school resources—space, money, staff, even respect. “In all of NCLB, there’s no mention of the role of librarians,” Lucke points out. “We were ignored in the call for highly qualified teachers, yet librarianship is a master’s program in most states.”

Librarians are often misused or underused as book-shelvers and checkout persons rather than co-educators who partner with classroom teachers on curriculum and state standards.  They’re also often placed in multiple, sometimes competing, roles. As the media center specialist for Dublin Elementary School in White Lake, Minnesota, Dan Love serves as a librarian, computer resource teacher, and fundraising coordinator. For the last four years, he’s also spent half of his work week as a release-time teacher. “There’s no time now,” says Love, “to collaborate with other teachers. When I interact with a teacher, most of the time it’s about technology, so the work I can do to support curriculum instruction is pushed even further on the back burner.”

Research has shown such moves are counterproductive. “Across the board, they’ve found that better libraries make better students, which, in turn, leads to better test scores,” says Lucke. She cites studies conducted in 16 states by Keith Curry Lambs, director of research for the Colorado State Library, showing that fully staffed and stocked libraries with a certified librarian supported by an aide and up-to-date technology correlated with higher test scores at all grade levels.

“The role of the school library media program should be to support the curriculum and learning in the school,” says Julie Walker, executive director of the American Association of School Libraries. “The entire school benefits,” she insists, “when schools provide a library that is not just about physical access but intellectual access as well.”

The library program is an integral part of the curriculum at Butterfield Elementary, Lucke’s school in Libertyville, Illinois. “I’m fortunate to work in a district that values its schools and libraries,” says Lucke, who works in tandem with classroom teachers to coordinate library lessons with classroom units. But even with good technology, reasonable budgets, and good staff support, the library is feeling the pinch of a budget that has not gone up in several years. “We’d like to do more but can’t,” says Lucke. “All schools are struggling to some extent.”

In response, librarians are finding new and creative ways to reach readers—both in and outside of school. At Middle Township High School, in Cape May Court House, New Jersey, librarian Kelly Lasher has started a book club for adults at the suggestion of her vice principal. Parents, educators, and community members are invited to meet once a month in the newly renovated school library. “The principal told me in my interview that the library was a priority—a main area where people gravitated,” says Lasher. “It helps that the faculty here looks at the library as a place where you can rely on things happening.”

“One Book, One School,” a library program gaining popularity in school districts across the country, has everyone at South Central Junior/Senior High in Elizabeth, Indiana, totally hooked. The entire school is reading Uglies, a futuristic trilogy by Scott Westerfeld about a world in which everyone has an operation to make them supermodel beautiful when they turn 16, except the “uglies,” a group of radical teens who decide they want to keep their own faces. “We selected a book whose themes would have tie-ins across the curriculum,” says media specialist Ann Jantzen, “and coordinated collaborative lessons that met Indiana state standards.”

Jantzen purchased 500 copies of the book with a grant from the Harrison County Community Foundation and distributed one to every student and staff person, including education support professionals, administrators, and school board members. “The impact has been amazing,” Jantzen says. “Students were coming into the library to reserve the second and third books in the series before they had finished the first book, and sometimes it was the kids I wouldn’t expect, the reluctant readers.” Among them: a half-dozen students in danger of not graduating. “Their teacher says they love Uglies so much, she has to tell them to stop reading in order to cover other subjects,” Jantzen confides. The book has created such a buzz, she says, students corner the assistant principal in the cafeteria to talk about it, parents and grandparents are reading it, and when author Scott Westerfeld visited the school last fall, the kids treated him like a rock star.

The library program back at Bradley Elementary is also experiencing a renaissance, as Swieder presides over a wonderful new collection that’s worlds away from her old traveling book cart. Now, when students step into the library, they can see paintings by local artists, perform plays in the puppet theater, visit a listening station with a DVD player and headphones, work with computers and a Smart Board—and wander from bookshelf to bookshelf, losing themselves in a world of books.

Bradley’s students now sift through 30 titles in the Exploring Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Creatures series, learn about the Tuskegee airmen in the Journey to Freedom series, and read biographies about their favorite celebrities. “Some of our fifth-graders had never been in a library,” says Swieder. “It took a long time for them to understand that books are placed in order on the shelves, not just piled in a box. Now that they have a library, they’re like little sponges. They want it all now.” 

Reader Relief
Moldy books. Peeling paint. Libraries falling apart. “And these aren’t in hurricane-ravaged schools,” says Anita Merina, coordinator for NEA’s Books Across America program. Launched in the storm-ravaged aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Books Across America went national this year to help school libraries that have been as damaged by budgetary and physical neglect as Gulf Coast schools were by Katrina.

In partnership with the Heart of America Foundation’s (HOA) new READesign project, Books Across America is delivering not only funds and books to schools in need, but also building blocks. READesign, a “library makeover” program that refurbishes libraries, replenishes bookshelves, and revitalizes technology, was conceived when a student told HOA President Angie Halamandaries that the school library was a scary place to go. Given that the school library is the only exposure to books some children have, putting books into rooms kids don’t want to visit is a serious problem, say Merina and Halamandaries.

Studies show that children living in poverty have fewer than two age-appropriate books at home—and sometimes none at all, Halamandaries adds. That’s compared to 50 books for middle-income families and almost 200 for wealthier ones. To make matters worse, children in poverty also have a dearth of books when they arrive at school. While the national average estimates 18 books per student in school libraries, many schools in depressed areas have less than one book per student.

The books, resources, and funds contributed by Books Across America and its partners to bridge that vast divide make a profound difference. “When we visit schools,” says Merina, “people cry and thank us for caring about their community. It’s a wonderful feeling to realize the long-lasting impact we’re making on future generations of readers.”

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“Thanks to READesign, a “Reading Garden” blooms at Cedar Hills Elementary in Jacksonville, Florida, where the fire code allows only 19 people in the library.”

NEA’s Books Across America