The #NowItStarts hashtag in May was intended to be a reminder to all stakeholders in Arizona that Prop 123 was only a beginning to the process of properly funding Arizona schools. Part of the consensus on Proposition 123, with the money it is now providing to schools at the risk of our state land trust, would be a first step in addressing the decades of inadequate funding. No specific second step had been planned, which was a concern of many who voted against the measure. Now that we are back in school, it is time to seriously seek a second step, and a third…
I wonder if perhaps lawmakers aren’t sure where to start, since schools are typically not a part of their daily life. As a teacher, I am keenly aware of what we have lost over the years, and I have some suggestions for what to bring back to schools. These suggestions will be the topics of my next few blogs.
My first one is a no-brainer: Bring back professional librarians. Many people may not be aware that librarians are actually a rare breed in Arizona schools. Most elementary and middle school libraries are run by “media center technicians” or another title that to the layperson means teacher’s aides. Where money is not available to hire a tech to run the library, parent volunteers often step in. Another solution has been to lock the library, and have teachers simply run the check-in, check-out process for their own classes. If you doubt this, call your child’s elementary or middle school and ask. All of these solutions have been very difficult decisions for cash-strapped schools.
These solutions have varying degrees of success and failure. Many of the library techs that I have met are very skilled, and committed to their school communities. However, a professional librarian brings a broader instructional, theoretical and ethical background. By ethics, I mean they have the depth of knowledge to curate a balanced collection of books and electronic resources across genres and subjects, and they have training in intellectual freedom.
A professional librarian is also more likely to be empowered within the system to make broader changes to the library or find sources of funding for big projects.
Libraries run by volunteers or part-time techs can easily die by attrition. The collection of materials becomes worn, outdated, or lost. I have even heard several stories of parents volunteering in the library only to pull books from the shelves and stash them away, books that they find objectionable for one reason or another. Professional librarians are trained to make age appropriate materials choices while avoiding censorship of specific ideas. They are committed to maintaining a broad and deep collection of materials. They are also often technology experts.
I have written in the past about the instructional support a good librarian can provide. They are certified, just as teachers are, and bring an understanding of educational standards and how students learn. They can play a key role in supporting teachers on school-wide goals, and help teachers across the curriculum incorporate research, reading and critical thinking skills into their courses. I cannot list how many times a librarian has sat with me at length to develop lessons. They often become a co-teacher. I owe a lot of what I understand about research and using online databases to librarians I have worked with, as well as any familiarity I have with young adult literature. And research backs up what I know from experience. Schools that have full time librarians see increases in student achievement.
I realize that many parent volunteers or library techs can make the library a welcoming place and form great relationships with students which enhance our schools. In the past, most high school libraries where I worked had a librarian AND an aide AND volunteers. Bringing librarians back into schools does not have to be an either-or choice. One school where I worked had a dynamic duo of full-time librarians who were busy busy all the time. The school had over 3,000 students. The year I left, one of the jobs was reduced to part time. Running a library is a job with infinite possibilities for helping create a great school. The more the merrier.
The good news is that under the newly reauthorized ESSA, federal money can be used to fund school libraries, librarians and professional development for librarians. Although I do not exactly understand the mechanisms by which this money is spent, I plan on learning.
And meanwhile, #NowItStarts. We have the opportunity to choose the steps which will rebuild our schools with some of the vital elements we have lost. Here is one simple next step: Provide funding to EVERY public school, earmarked for at least one full time librarian. This simple and relatively inexpensive step will leave a huge footprint.