Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


School Libraries: A Dispppearing Act

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Part Two of Two

By Dale Mezzacappa

School and library are words that should be inseparable, like reading and books. But not in the School District of Philadelphia. Increasingly, school leaders in the district have come to regard school libraries as unaffordable - perhaps even unnecessary - extras. .

Strapped for funds, looking for ways to focus resources to increase test scores, and unsure of how to move forward in the technological age, principals have more often than not opted to close their libraries and eliminate the position of the librarian, which requires a teacher certified in library science.

According to the Association of Philadelphia School Librarians, three out of four of the city's public schools do not have a certified librarian. Many of them have not updated their collection in years. Some school libraries are permanently shut, their books inaccessible behind iron gates.

"Librarians teach critical thinking and research skills, and those are not addressed anywhere else in the school," said Carol Heinsdorf, incoming president of APSL and a Philadelphia school librarian for 21 years. "Kids cannot use the internet in an academically appropriate fashion unless they have critical thinking skills and are taught research methods. Otherwise, they're cutting and pasting."

Heinsdorf said it is not just the students, but teachers and even principals who need help navigating the internet to be able to sort out quality information from junk.

School libraries are especially important in neighborhoods where children are less likely to have books at home, Heinsdorf said. But these are exactly the schools in which they are most likely to be shuttered - put on the chopping block in favor of an extra reading teacher or math specialist or another classroom teacher to reduce class size.

APSL says that 214 of the 284 public schools in the city have no certified librarians. Many charter schools don't budget for them, either.


Money used elsewhere

Some of these are staffed by paraprofessionals, but others are shuttered.

Whether a principal decides to keep the library open after a librarian retires depends a lot on whether the person has run a high-quality program, said Deli Neuman, the director of the school library media program at Drexel University.

"If that person hasn't run a strong vibrant program, principal may think they can use the money more appropriately for another teacher," she said. The field of library science has changed dramatically, and not all school librarians have kept up.

"As in any field, the real pros do it," said Neuman.

Joyce Valenza, the librarian at Springfield High School in Montgomery County runs a nationally-recognized program that is affiliated with Drexel's internet public library and blogs about it. "Hers is a model of what strong, progressive school library programs can be," said Neuman.

By contrast, a few miles over the city line, students are less likely to have libraries at all.

"We start with the youngest children to engage them in literature, and proceed as they are capable to involve them with inquiry, critical thinking, and research projects," said Heinsdorf. "If you want a well-educated child and if you want them to be on equal footing with kids from suburbs, you have to have these things."

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman cites the lack of libraries in many schools as evidence of inequity among schools in the city, as well as with richer suburbs. However, her five-year Imagine 2014 reform plan doesn't make a commitment to restore them. It lists as a goal that all high schools have "quality, functioning libraries."

Now, only about half of the 61 high schools do.


An Ackerman promise

For the elementary schools - where just 36 of nearly 200 have librarians - the target is more vague: "providing library books for classrooms or expanding school libraries."

But at a City Council hearing on the school budget this week, Ackerman said she would do an inventory of school library resources.

"The District committed to provide a more in-depth analysis of what library resources exist throughout the District and their plans moving forward," said Sharon Gaskins of the mayor's office on education. "We believe this analysis is important for us to have in order to know how best to proceed."

She added: "All Philadelphia students deserve access to books, resources and adults to help them learn research skills and spark their love of reading and learning overall."

Still, state funding for public libraries is being cut, and some of that trickles down to schools, especially for electronic access. From 2008-09 to 2010, state aid to libraries was cut 24 percent.

"School libraries don't have any other state funding source. Any loss of the little they might get from the state is keenly felt," said Baruch Kintisch of the Education Law Center, which tracks state budget issues with an eye towards equity.

President Obama's 2011 education budget provides no increases in aid for school libraries.

Studies in a variety of states claim a correlation between student test scores and the presence of a skilled librarian who works collaboratively with teachers to increase students' research skills. A study released in 2000 found that in Pennsylvania, schools with the highest PSSA scores spend twice as much on libraries as the lowest-scoring ones - but that could be a reflection that more affluent schools have higher test scores, rather than a measurement of the library's effect. 

Janet Malloy, the outgoing president of the Association of Philadelphia School Librarians, said that students need to be imbued with a love of reading from an early age. And, in Philadelphia, sometimes the only place that happens is in a school library.

"Everybody wants libraries, but they keep saying they are too expensive," she said. "But there is more of a loss when libraries are not in the schools. According to Malloy, the well-staffed, well-run library can energize an entire school.

"I think people still have image of the librarian as a mousy person who, shushes people and takes care of books," Malloy said. "But if they had any idea of the types of things we do, they wouldn't see that."


Dale Mezzacappa is a reporter who writes frequently about education






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