In 2003, the information specialists of Henrico County (Va.) Public Schools (HCPS) noticed that the district's newly hired librarians had a substantial turnover rate. The district, consisting of over 48,000 students, 6,500 staff members, and 63 schools sprawling across suburban Richmond, was retaining a mere 56 percent of new librarian hires.
According to Ann Martin, education specialist for HCPS and 2009 American Association of School Librarians (AASL) president, librarians were not receiving the same support within their department as that offered to the district's teachers. "Usually there is only one librarian placed per school, leaving them very isolated," says Martin. "They're basically working on an island."
With districts facing budget concerns nationwide, library media programs and staffing are limited. Without the benefits of a co-worker, many librarians in Henrico County were left to troubleshoot problems on their own. "We were concerned," says Martin. "We thought we could do more to prepare librarians for their first year of work." She recognized the need for a program that would provide a skilled support system for new librarians and promote professional longevity.
In 2004, a voluntary mentoring system emerged within the district that encouraged seasoned librarians to reach out to new hires. By the 2005 school year, an official long-distance mentoring program was launched pairing those new to the job with established librarians in other schools. Co-coordinators Joyce Ricks, librarian at Twin Hickory Elementary, and Susan Howe, librarian at Tuckahoe Middle School, spearheaded the program, which was christened Collaborative Partners.
Since the program's implementation, Ricks and Howe have worked tirelessly to advance it. New teachers within the county are required to participate in HCPS's staff development mentoring initiative. Ricks and Howe felt that one of their most important strategies was to have new librarians participate in the same staff development mentoring plan that new teachers are required to attend. In 2007, the district granted their request. Their program qualified under the district's guidelines and included new librarians.
Collaborative Partners begins with a training session in August prior to the first day of class. A handbook is distributed that provides a thorough outline of each job and the tasks one is expected to complete within the year. Both the mentor and the mentee maintain a journal tracking their communication.
"These logs helped HCPS recognize us," says Howe. "Staff development was impressed with how much time was being given to new librarians."
Collaborative Partners members meet each month to discuss new topics, set goals and share ideas. "We want everyone to feel comfortable about opening up and discussing their opinions," says Ricks. Another component of Collaborative Partners was incorporating the AASL's "Standards for the 21st Century Learner." These principles encourage librarians to prepare their students to become skilled at acquiring knowledge to compete in a global economy.
Collaborative Partners has proven to be a success throughout the district. By 2008, the retention rate had increased to 93 percent.
"Without question, this is a great opportunity to collaborate, mentor and train," says Patrick Russo, superintendent of HCPS. "The program gives them a great support system to learn from and lean on."
According to Ricks, the program has rarely produced a negative experience, and she notes that the mentoring is equally rewarding for both parties. "When you start to share, you reflect on your own way of doing work. I feel I've gotten even more out of it than I've given."
With no upfront costs, Collaborative Partners leaders feel this program could be instilled in any district for any scenario. The only tools necessary are time, a thorough mission statement, and a positive attitude. "All you really need," says Howe, "are experienced people who are involved and enthusiastic about sharing what they do."
Marion Herbert is an associate editor.