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Heart of the School

The school library is as valuable as learning how to read and compute. But it's a tough sell for administrators.

Students in Appoquinimink School District in Odessa, Del., were getting gypped for years. Nine years ago, they had library media centers that were showing signs of age, full of outdated material, sometimes 20 years old, and very few library media specialists.

"It was an afterthought place for some materials," recalls Superintendent Tony Marchio, who has been there for nine years.

Then about five years ago, Marchio knew something had to change. District leaders were looking to devise a comprehensive approach to improve student achievement following years of no real emphasis on testing and no real consequence for students performing poorly, he says.

Marchio read some research about the benefits of media centers, particularly reports from library research guru Keith Curry Lance, director of the Library Research Service, a unit of the Colorado State Library and Colorado Department of Education. Marchio found a direct correlation between student achievement and a bustling school library. He knew librarians needed flexible scheduling and libraries needed steady funding.

Now, full-time certified library media specialists are in every one of the five elementary schools, two middle schools and high school. And steady income comes from two previous referendums and a state appropriation worth $1 million every year for school libraries, which is about $5,000 for each library, he says.

"There is no doubt they are the center of the school," Marchio says.

Each library is now open and offers reading programs during the summer to encourage students to read year-round, Marchio says. And the high school library has become the community library as well.

The district is showing great improvement. While students used to score in the middle of the pack statewide, they are now the top or among the top performing school districts in reading, math and writing, Marchio says. Last spring, third- and fifth-grade reading ranked first in the state, while eighth- and 10th-grade reading scored second in the Delaware Student Testing Program. "I think it's really about creating the right culture here in the district and a culture that recognizes the value of each student and the philosophy that all kids can learn and that as educators it's up to us to discover the special talents in kids and develop those."

Research showing the value of libraries has been around for years. But a new report from Scholastic Library Publishing, School Libraries Work!, compiled by Terrence Young, a librarian at West Jefferson High School in the Jefferson Parish Public Schools in New Orleans, encapsulated in 17 pages a plethora of statistics and information from 14 states over the past decade. The report essentially reveals that if a library has a strong, diverse collection, acts as a curriculum partner with classroom teachers and is staffed with certified media specialists, students in that school will score higher on standardized tests regardless of socio-economic and educational levels. For example, students in Alaska's secondary schools with full-time librarians were almost twice as likely as those without them to score average or higher on achievement tests. And in Minnesota, of schools with above-average scores on grade 3, 5 and 8 reading tests, nearly 67 percent were schools with full-time library media specialists.

"I see that the schools meeting No Child Left Behind have good, active school libraries," says Dawn Vaughn, president of American Association of School Librarians and assistant to the principal at Cherry Creek High School in Denver. "The challenge is providing resources to our schools that traditionally didn't have a qualified library media specialist."

Not only are school librarians key to higher student academic achievement, but school library media centers that have a catalog of materials, track books and allow teachers to check out books for their classrooms for weeks at a time, are vital for student academic health at every grade level, according to research. Thanks to a new law, led by Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and which was incorporated into the NCLB law, millions of federal funds have been funneled into providing well-trained and professionally certified library media specialists. The law also covers contemporary library books and resources for school libraries after a study revealed that many library books were more than 15 years old--which did not include the fall of the Soviet Union, for example, Lance says.

Since 2000 in Ohio, 206 people lost their jobs as library media specialists in 128 school districts, according to Suellyn Stotts, media specialist at Grizzell Middle School in Dublin City Schools and past president of Ohio Educational Library Media Association.

"In my opinion, I think school districts need to have a certified person in every level," Stotts says. At the elementary level especially "that's where you can convince students to be lifelong library users," she adds. "Here we are in a computer era where the amount of information is doubling every couple of months. The kids need more help than ever before to locate information and to apply it and analyze it. It's just amazing to me that we're not seeing it as more beneficial than ever before."

Troubling Trends

Two trends are occurring that spell trouble for schools and student achievement. In some districts, budget cuts in schools force administrators to weigh their options and pit teachers versus librarians. For example, if administrators are forced to chose between an extra teacher to reduce classroom size or a reading specialist over a librarian, often the librarian goes and with it a plethora of knowledge and skills that could benefit every child in the school in the way of teaching students how to find the best resources the Internet has to offer.

In those situations, someone like a volunteer, curriculum director or information services person takes over as library leader who is purely keeping track of book checkouts.

It is among the reasons for a new book. District Library Administration: A Big Picture Approach, published by Linworth Publishing, is a comprehensive guide for the person in charge of libraries within a district or overseeing multiple school libraries. "When people are training to be library supervisors, there is very little out there to help you learn to do that job and with today's economic conditions, school districts are cutting back and people who have no background in library [science] are now in charge in libraries," says author Cynthia Anderson, also associate superintendent for educational services at Shawnee Mission (Kansas) School District.

Anderson says the greatest responsibilities for library media specialists include ensuring a solid selection of books and materials, as well as establishing policies to run libraries smoothly. "I think libraries have never been more important than they are right now," Anderson says. "Librarians are such valuable employees that they can do two things: They can motivate kids to read through the selections they make but they can also teach reading so the classroom teacher isn't on her own. There is another trained professional in your building who can teach reading. ... The librarians can help kids find good resources online for writing assignments."

Lance goes further, saying librarians are among the most misunderstood professionals in schools. "What principals and teachers need to learn is the role of the librarian and how to work with that person," Lance says.

In Rochester, Minn., cuts go deep as well. Over the past few years, budget cuts trimmed staff and now the 10 library media specialists in the district's 15 schools have become merely "prep-time providers," according to Sandra George, media specialist at Riverside Central Elementary School in Rochester.

Essentially, the term refers to a 30-minute weekly slot of time a media specialist has with students to give classroom teachers time to prepare their own lessons, George says. "We need to be there when students are doing research, we need to be a team teacher ... and we need to teach information literacy skills," George says. In prep-time, skills are taught out of context and there is no immediate follow-up with the students, she adds.

In another disturbing trend, some experts say, some teachers and principals are ordering books to fill classrooms with their own libraries that will help students read on grade level in preparation for upcoming standardized tests. But those books are not getting circulated to the entire student population in the school and they are often duplicated and left at home, meaning a big waste of money for districts.

"No one is disputing the fact that the more kids are exposed to books the better it is," says Young. "But it's taking away from the library where not everyone has access."

Lance agrees the return of the classroom library is "the most discouraging."

"To be honest and blunt ... classroom libraries aren't about teaching and learning," Lance says. "They're about book sellers. They see great opportunities to sell the same book and many copies of that book. If you take money for the classroom collection, you poured money down a rat hole. The reason it's a rat hole is that they [book sellers] intend the books to be disposable. They encourage teachers to have the students take the books home [and they go missing]. It's all about book selling, not about education. Now, I'm not saying that it's not a good idea to have books in the classroom. ... But they need to be created out of the school library collection so they can rotate the books and they're not stuck with the same books forever."

A number of districts are creating centralized library systems so that their entire collection of books and materials, which are in individual school building libraries, is listed on an online catalog where every book is tracked. With centralized systems, such as in the Metropolitan School District in Washington Township in Indianapolis, Ind., not only does every student, teacher and community member have access 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for research and homework reports, but the district is using every dollar wisely.

"I have both statistically and a lot of real world information that allows me to manage our resources a lot better than we were before," says Guy Washington, systems administrator for the Metropolitan district. "I'm seeing it as a major resource center in which every dollar needs to be maximized."

The Sagebrush Corp. Accent system, which was online in July 2003 in Metropolitan Schools, offers 238,000 items including books, DVDs, CDs, audiotapes and VCRs, for the district's 14 schools and 10,800 students. Anyone in the world can access the online resources, but getting the physical item is limited to students and teachers, who must use an ID number, he says.

"I'm seeing far fewer multiple copies of the same book coming in and a wider variety," Washington says. "I'm starting to see greater depth."

For example, before the system, each of the 15 schools had their own separate libraries with their own librarians, their own servers and their own set of rules. Although the school libraries are still intact, the district no longer has to buy multiple copies of the same books to put on each of the school's library shelves. Instead, they can have 30 copies of Harry Potter, for example, for the whole district instead of 15 copies for each library. The district wanted to get all their resources "evenly distributed throughout the community," Washington says. "We were not getting an efficient use of our resources."

Now, an entire series of Africa's countries and their history, as well as more fiction books are gracing the shelves, he says. If a book is available at a school and the student is in another school, a courier service, or pony system, will send the book to that school that day if the request is made before 10 a.m., he says. And if parents want more grade level 5 books for their children, they can find a list of appropriate books on the site,, Washington adds.

Sagebrush Accent also serves Rochester, Minn. schools, and has done so for the past four years. Despite the benefits, George says time to team teach and teach students skills on information literacy is still lost with budget cuts.

What's In It for Me?

Now that Lance has seen the proof and Young has shown the proof to others in School Libraries Work!, Lance says his next research venture is about "What's in it for me?" tactic. When surveys turn questions around to see how teachers and administrators perceive the role of librarians, Lance says, then there may be more interest among administrators to value--and keep or hire--library media specialists.

"I'd like to focus attention on how much principals and teachers understand the role of the school library and librarians and how much they work with them," he says. "We want them to perceive them to be important. We need principals and teachers to become champions for school libraries."

Angela Pascopella is features editor.

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