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Rally to Restore Philadelphia School Librarians: Responses, reflections, and resources

On January 24th, at the beginning of ALA Midwinter, 150 people rallied to restore school librarians in Philadelphia.

Photo by Kyle Cassidy for EveryLibrary

The rally

Led by PSLA leaders, Deb Kachel and Cathi Fuhrman and Robin Burns, with the expert guidance of EveryLibrary’s John Chrastka and Patrick Sweeney, supporters from around the city and around the country gathered in front of the School District of Philadelphia Administration Building. The goal was to bring attention to the fact that only seven school librarians currently serve approximately 125,000 students across 215 schools in the district–the worst ratio of school librarians to students in the nation.

Our special guest speakers included:

  • Lauren Comito, founder of Urban Librarians Unite and recent recipient of Library Journal’s Librarian of the Year Award, who acted as MC
  • State Representative Tom Murt, a former educator and a primary co-sponsor of HB 1355, legislation that would require every school in Pennsylvania to have a certified librarian.
  • State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta
  • State Senator Vincent Hughes
  • State Senator Larry Farnese, co-sponsor of SB 752, legislation that would require public schools to have at least one certified librarian
  • City Councilwoman Kendra Brook, who is also a School District of Philadelphia parent
  • Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, President and American Federation of Teachers, President, Jerry T. Jordan
  • Teacher representative of WE, the Caucus of Working Educators, Jessica Way
  • Former Philadelphia school librarian and leader in APPS, the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, Debbie Grill
  • Masterman High School senior Kayla Johnson

Television coverage included this report by NBC10’s Stephanía Jiménez:

For me, one of the most powerful moments was Kayla Johnson’s poignant recognition of her privilege, as a student who attended Philadelphia schools that still had librarians through her whole K12 experience. (See video at 28:40.) While she learned to navigate and understand the value of her library’s network of databases, she knows that many kids don’t even know what a database is. She remembers that as freshmen she and her friends laughed with ironic gratitude that library skills was actually the class that taught us the most and actually thoroughly prepared us for our future as students.

Kayla recognizes librarians’ contribution to instruction, witnessing the relief of teachers who rely on their expertise in designing assignments and integrating resources. She recognizes the library as a safe space for the individual and as an important space that creates community. She has called it home for eight years.

Our students are granted the opportunity to flourish with access to knowledge, resources, the world of literature and the creation of school community. The space created by our library, the space of educational, creative and social productivity, bleeds into our school environment.

I am standing here in privilege. A simple thing as a library has meant so much to me and my school community and its such a shame that everybody does not have that same experience.

Responses

In sharp contrast to Kayla’s powerful description and understanding of the role a school library plays in a learning culture, is the School District of Philadelphia’s response to the rally.

The Philadephia Inquirer reported a response to the rally from district spokesperson Megan Lello:

. . . the district provides classroom libraries and other media and technology to support the literacy aim that has been a hallmark of Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.’s administration: making sure all children read on grade level by age 8.

The school district values the expertise of any staff member working to enhance the literacy skills of our students. The collective work to help students read on or above grade level is important to ensure the next generation of this city’s leaders are thoughtful and competent citizens.

KYW News Radio also shared this statement responding to the rally. The district says it provides:

independent and instructional books, media and technology throughout classrooms and school buildings to engage students throughout their daily learning experiences. In addition, all kindergarten through third grade classrooms have classroom libraries with age-appropriate reading materials, with all fourth and fifth grade classrooms gaining libraries by the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Approximately 50 schools have libraries with catalog systems, and all schools have a subscription to PA Power Library, which makes libraries virtually accessible to all schools.

I was unable to discover much about the classroom libraries within the district, but it does appear that they do rely on donations and book drives. And I wonder what types of collections these 50 catalog systems describe and who selected the materials to which they point.

PSLA’s response, School District of Philadelphia Must Recognize that School Librarians are Essential to Student Learning, addresses the district’s justification for cutting library programs.

On the argument relating to classroom collections, PSLA shares:

Providing a limited number of books in a classroom library is not a substitute for a school library. Students, particularly those from homes where books are not readily available, need access to books in every room of the school. Classroom libraries provide books selected to meet reading levels, student interests, and topics studied at a specific grade level. School libraries provide a broader range of reading levels, fiction and nonfiction for both recreational and informational purposes, and a much larger collection from which students can choose, especially when they might quickly read through what is available in a classroom library. School libraries are a cost-effective solution since books are shared among all grade levels and can reduce the purchasing of multiple copies of the same title

On the argument relating to the PA POWER Library, PSLA shares:

Having access to the PA POWER Library, a collection of digital resources provided by the state to all libraries, also cannot replace a school library and a state-certified school librarian. POWER Library is a collection of over 30 databases, plus ACCESS PA, a state-wide electronic catalog of library resources. Effective use of these e-resources requires time to learn how to navigate and search each one. Certified school librarians are trained in selecting the best databases considering subjects studied, as well as age and reading-level appropriateness. In addition, school librarians teach students and faculty alike how to integrate these digital resources into their teaching and learning. Students need to be taught specific evaluation skills to determine relevance, authority, and accuracy for what they find in the databases and on the Internet. School librarians are invaluable partners to teachers. Without trained, certified school librarians, very few schools and students learn about or use POWER Library resources effectively and cannot borrow books from other public and school libraries through ACCESS PA.

On the argument that any educator should teach literacy skills, PSLA shares:

State-certified school librarians are trained in children’s and young adult literature and are tasked with developing a diverse selection of titles, interests, reading levels, and languages, inspiring all students to develop a habit of reading to learn and grow. The expertise of school librarians lies in knowing the available resources and developing the depth and breadth of a school library collection that mirrors the diversity of their community and provides students the freedom to explore beyond their much smaller classroom library. In addition, there is research that documents that in states that lost school librarians, fourth grade reading test scores actually dropped.

Reflection

Of course, when you come down to it, this is an equity issue. As Pat Tumulty, Executive Director of the New Jersey shared with me, This is a national crisis, but it is a local tragedy.

Site-based management has contributed to this crisis/tragedy. Principals with tight budgets make tough choices. Though they are free to hire librarians, it is clear they are not prioritized over competing and often seemingly more urgent school needs.

After nearly 20 years of eliminating librarians, real libraries and real librarians are not part of district culture and most educators and many parents do not remember what a vibrant, modern school library looks like or what its role might be in a learning culture. In other words, they do not know what they do not have. You have to see it to know you want it. To know your kids deserve it.

As we gathered on the steps before the rally I spoke with a group of young men from Masterman. Several of them shared the reason they showed up was that they had been in schools without librarians before coming to Masterman.

When the speeches were over, I spoke with Senator Hughes who represents Pennsylvania District 7, which covers parts of Philadelphia and the part of suburban Montgomery County where I live and where I worked.

I reminded the Senator of his visits to Springfield Township High School Library, one of which was to help us celebrate our selection as an exemplary Pennsylvania school library on the AASL Vision Tour.

Senator Hughes smiled and said, Yes, I remember. That library was just like a college library.

I responded that actually, it was what a high school library looks like. All high school kids deserve high school libraries that look like that. I could see the Senator agreed.

When Debbie Grill spoke at the rally, she highlighted the disparities across the two counties. She remembers becoming a school librarian in 1990 when there were 175 school librarians in the SDP. Now there are seven. With a few school libraries operating with volunteers, Debbie noted that Philadelphia school libraries have become objects of charity.

As a literacy coach in Germantown High School, Debbie was one of the adults who accompanied a group of honors students from their Philadelphia High School just a few miles down the road to Springfield. (Hear Debbie’s story at 24:06.)

I was asked to share the resources of our physical library, as well as our digital resources and tools, with these students who wanted to rebuild their own high school library with the support of their Alumni Association. Among our other resources, I shared relevant content from the PA POWER Library.

Debbie remembers that as they were leaving, one of the young men turned to her and said, I will never be able to compete with these students when I go to college.

I wrote about that experience in A Visit to Remember.

Our school is about five blocks away from the city border. Friday, a group of 12 honor students from one of the nearby urban high schools, came by for what turned out to be a nearly whole-day visit.

Nearly all of them are planning on college.  And they are serious about building a library.  Because they are juniors and seniors, the library they build will be a legacy.

As our time together passed, I watched their faces.  They listened and responded politely. 

It was apparent that something else was happening.  Something not part of our planned program. This was no longer an information-gathering visit.  This was a clear vision of inequity.  And this was a mission that would promote activism.

I showed them some of the products our students created as the result of their research–the blogs and wikis; the digital stories created with traditional movie-making tools and VoiceThread and Animoto

I told them all these tools are available and they are free.  They looked at me stunned.  And they took notes.

I asked them how they communicated the results of their research.  Universally they responded: term papers.  Despite the fact that these kids were so excited by the student-produced media we toured, no other channel had been suggested for their work.

We showed them the things we loan: among them cameras and flash drives and headsets.  They were impressed.

We talked about research strategies. 

These students had never seen a pathfinder that might guide them through their research.  What floored me most was that they’d never heard of databases.  They went nuts over some of the ones we subscribe to, the ones our own students take for granted. They especially loved Gale’s Opposing Viewpoints

Here’s the real shame.  They knew NOTHING about our State Library-funded Access PA POWER Library

Most of the students had computer access at home, but no school library page led them to this free resource.  No teacher suggested it.  . .

We toured only two of those databases and I watched as jaws dropped.   

They explored EBSCO’s Student Research Center, with its available full-text access to magazines, newspapers, books, transcripts, primary sources, video, and more.  You mean we had this stuff available to us all along?

My principal, who was with us for most of the visit, kept shaking his head. 

He’d worked in that very school.  He debriefed with the students before they got back on the bus.  He discussed the digital divide with them.  He discussed what they might possibly do with their new knowledge and their growing anger.

This is an equity issue. Parents and students and teachers across our state do not know what they do not have. You have to see it to want it. Are we doing enough to make our examples of effective practice truly visible to the public?

Resources:

 

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Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza

Comments

  1. Thanks Joyce for documenting the Rally for School Libraries and stunningly flat response by the district. Kudos to PSLA and EveryLibrary organizers who brought ALA-MW participants to add our voices to the local issue that is as you quote Pat Tumulty’s comments “This is a national crisis, but it is a local tragedy. ”
    “After perhaps 20 years of eliminating librarians, real libraries and real librarians are not part of district culture and most educators and many parents do not remember what a vibrant, modern school library looks like or what its role might be in a learning culture. In other words, they do not know what they do not have. You have to see it to know you want it.”

    At the rally, I was heartened by strong words of support from Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, President and American Federation of Teachers, President, Jerry T. Jordan. This session in our legislative efforts in Washington State for our school library bill HB 2637 we heard our own WEA teachers’ union voice in strong support of school libraries.

    The Philadelphia rally and your own NeverEnding efforts confirm my sense that we must continue bringing pressure at every school, district and state legislative levels with our eyes fixed on equity for Every Student.

  2. Joyce Valenza Joyce Valenza says:

    Thank you, Craig. And thank you for the good fight you engage in daily for equity for the children of Washington State.

  3. Thank you, Craig, for your efforts in the rally of school libraries. Thanks to, Joyce also for documenting the rally. I will also share it at OGDEN to motivate students. Cheers!!!

  4. LIbrarians are a vital part of the school and its library. They play a significant role in maintaining the culture as well as dignity for a positive outcome of students. Joyce, You have documented the whole scenario in a very specific way. I do agree with you that students need a qualified librarian. Thank you for showing the real path in order to restore the librarian in each school. Students of NUSD will be highly motivated after knowing the true value of a librarian.

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