A Picture is Worth 1,000 Books

How did this happen? That’s what everyone wants to know. How does a public school library wind up with only 40 usable books of fiction on its shelves in a school that serves kids from pre-Kindergarten through the 8th grade? It turns out the answer has everything to do with state budgets, national priorities, and a long history of under- and unequal-funding of schools in our poorest neighborhoods.

Let’s start with the good news. Our call to action to Stack-the-Shelves at Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 went completely viral this week. Literally thousands of people around the country and across the globe saw our original post and blog piece (see “Library Books and Equity”) and within hours thousands more had shared the story with their networks on Facebook and twitter. We got re-tweeted by actress Allison Pill from the HBO series The Newsroom, children’s author Laurie Halse Anderson (who wrote Speak), and mega-award winning author Neil Gaiman (The Sandman, Coraline, The Graveyard Book, and many others). A new meme created by Kathy Newman captures this moment exactly:

By week’s end, hundreds and hundreds of donated books started pouring into the school, including over 650 new books purchased from an Amazon Wish List, and the Post-Gazette featured our grassroots movement on the front page. [Post-Gazette, 9-22-12] Sheila May-Stein, the intrepid librarian hired temporarily by the District to get Manchester’s library back on its feet, reports that, “Manchester Craftsman Guild is getting involved with the school, PPG offered a 3-year grant, Toonseum is donating cartooning classes, a local storyteller is going to tell stories and teach sign language, Pitt’s School of Library and Information Science students are going to help catalog, [and] Jonathan Mayo is going to help to fix up the physical space.”

Manchester is a distressed community, but it cares about the school and this grassroots action is helping to support even further engagement. Two women from the neighborhood were the very first people through the door with a giant box of donated books. Others from the Northside area are stepping up to volunteer in multiple ways, such as offering to read to the kids and helping students make posters based on the books they’ve read to decorate their new library.

The first people in the door to donate books were these wonderful women from the community.

This is an amazing success story for our grassroots movement and demonstrates the immense power we have when we act together. At the same time, it illustrates the much bigger issue of equity in public education and the choices that are being made at the local, state, and federal level. So here’s the short answer to that pressing question “How did this happen?”

For many years, Pittsburgh Public Schools gave principals flexibility in how they spent some of their funds in what is called their site-based budget. Flexibility can be a good thing and in theory allows schools to respond to local needs. However, when the entire school budget is not sufficient to cover all high-priority needs, principals have been forced to “rob Peter to pay Paul,” essentially stealing from library budgets to pay for things like teachers.

This occurred for years at places such as Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 with the tacit approval of the District. This doesn’t mean that other schools in the city were rolling in dough while the predominantly African-American Manchester didn’t have books, but the fact remains that other schools were making different choices while keeping their libraries. Some had parents raising money for some of the “extras” such as field trips to help free up the site-based budget for other needs. And it appears there was plain old inequity in the way resources were distributed among the District’s schools.

Part of the problem has been that the District did not put school libraries on a hard funding line, so they were fungible, and their budgets could be raided for other highly critical needs. This kind of structural issue creates a false dichotomy: we can either have a teacher or a librarian. Yet kids need both. All our students deserve a full time librarian, as well as art, music, language, and gym. These are not fat to be cut in lean times and we need to ensure that funding is available for all of these things.

The District’s new Equity program commits to having a library in every school this year, which is a good start. But one of the ways they have achieved that is by taking away flexibility with site-based budgets. When schools are not sufficiently funded, this actually creates new problems – and they can be very real problems with racial equity.

A quick example to illustrate: the city school where my sons attend lost its Title 1 funding a couple years ago because as the school population grew with more local, white families sending their children back into the public system the proportion of low-income (and mostly African-American) students dropped. Their absolute numbers actually stayed the same, but their overall percentage in the student population dropped just below the cut-off line for this federal program, which had been providing crucial funding for tutoring programs and teachers. When the District cut the school’s Parent Engagement Specialist this year – a key position for engaging those low-income families in their students’ education – the loss of flexibility with the site-based budget meant the principal was not permitted to shift funds to cover this critical need.

Of course, a much better equity action plan would be to adequately resource all schools, to make sure they have excellent leadership, and then to empower them with sufficient local control to meet local needs. When schools are not adequately funded, they are forced to make impossible choices. And Pennsylvania has been chronically under-funding public education for years (we rank 44/50 on how much we spend at the state level, forcing local towns to pick up the tab, contributing mightily to the inequity problem). We also have a broken funding formula that does not fairly distribute the state dollars we do spend.

This has affected kids all over Pennsylvania. One teacher from a North Philadelphia school wrote that, “not only have we had no library for at least 5 years, but it is now a shell. No books, no shelves, no computers, and no librarian.” She asked, “How can we develop a love and passion for reading when there are no books at school?” and added, “Our kids cannot even go to the public library in the neighborhood, because it is too dangerous.” Carol H. Rasco, CEO of Reading is Fundamental, the nation’s largest literacy program, explained that, “Currently there are 16 million children in our nation living in poverty, the highest number in two decades, and in low-income neighborhoods, there is only one book for every 300 children.” [Washington Post, 4-22-12]

That’s the equivalent of Manchester preK-8 having one book in the whole school. Our grassroots viral effort will make sure that Pittsburgh’s children have thousands of books to read. In this way (and in many, many others) Pittsburgh is very fortunate. But now we need to also make sure that there is a long-term plan for our school libraries.

Book collections don’t maintain themselves and a librarian one day per week in a school is simply not enough. They can barely check books in and out in that time, let alone collaborate with teachers to build on lessons being learned in the classroom, help students find appropriate reading material, teach information gathering skills, run reading clubs and other special programs, host book fairs, and get to know students and their individual needs. What’s more, under the new Equity plan, some schools are actually losing access to their librarians who used to be available three to five days per week, and now are being shared between schools. We are lucky to still have a librarian at my sons’ school, but she now has two classes she must teach on top of her regular librarian duties. This should not be.

I am hoping the District will address the staffing issue, but it will require a tough, honest conversation in our entire community. For instance, do we need to close still more schools, perhaps some of the smallest, so that we effectively have fewer total libraries and can fully staff them? I don’t know the answer to that question, but we need to talk about it. We will also need to know how the District will ensure that these thousands of donated books get properly catalogued and, once we fill the shelves at Manchester, how they will be distributed to the schools that need them. Finally, what will the District do with the funds they would have spent on books this year now that volunteers have stepped up to fill the library shelves?

In some ways, our well-meaning action has created a wrinkle for Pittsburgh Public Schools. Our donations do not fit into a well-planned scheme for developing school collections; there will be gaps and duplication; we’ve created an immediate need for resources to deal with the piles of boxes arriving at the school. But the outpouring of support for our schools is incredibly precious. This is a golden opportunity for the District to build on the goodwill of the community and to reinforce meaningful parent engagement with public education. And this grassroots movement will continue to ask tough questions about state budget priorities, too, which have perpetuated this inequality.

The first boxes of new books arrive in the office at Pittsburgh Manchester.

7 thoughts on “A Picture is Worth 1,000 Books

  1. Thank you Jessie! I would like to add a few things, which you probably already know, but your readers may not. I am one of the very few, extremely lucky librarians in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. I am at one school – the one Jessie’s kids attend – full time. While the ‘extra classes’ I teach have been cut down to one (I teach grammar/handwriting/writers’ workshop one period per day) I am still not in an ideal situation. I see all k-6 students for a scheduled library period – 45 minutes – each week. I don’t have the 7th or 8th grade students at all. According to the Pennsylvania School Library Guidelines, a school our size should have a MINIMUM of 1.5 full-time librarians AND 1 full-time clerk.
    Unfortunately, there is no “well-planned scheme for developing school collections”. I have no real book budget. I acquire books for our library by fund-raising (holding a 6 day book fair and used book sale) and having parents donate books for their children’s birthdays. I am able to make a plan for my collection development because I have the time to get to know the teachers and students, and take their needs and interests into consideration. A five school a week librarian does not have this ‘luxury’.
    We no longer have a department head. Library Services has been co-opted by the English Department. While I know the new administrators want to serve the libraries, it is no substitute for having a full-time department leader who can focus solely on improving school libraries.
    A MILLION THANK YOUS to you and Sheila and all of those who have posted and re-tweeted this subject. I hope that the response – totally amazing and heartwarming – to the Manchester Library will be a wake up call to everyone: from parents to principals to the Governor. School Libraries Matter!

  2. This is a terribly important article which begins — well — to address one of the ways in which budget cuts have robbed Pennsylvania’s children of invaluable resources in their schools.

    May I respectfully add: school library/media teachers are not “just” librarians. Our schools desperately need fully-stocked and well-maintained libraries with someone doing the clerk job full time (and in our schools that “someone” is the library teacher, though suburban schools often have clerks).

    School library/media teachers are certified with Masters Degrees in Library/Information Science (MLIS). We have been trained to teach our students how to approach, access, sift through, evaluate, and synthesize information — and how to create new information and ideas in the process. This is an invaluable, absolutely essential skill in today’s world — and one which our students do not have adequate access to when our library/media teachers are not able to teach! To assign a library/media teacher to a school one day a week is to ask a highly skilled, highly trained teacher not to teach but to try to clean up, stock, and clerk five school libraries. What a waste. And what an impossible situation. Calling this “equity” is at best an act of desperation. This situation has led many library/media specialists to leave that profession, to teach other subjects (as I do, working to integrate this training into my Communications classes as best I can) or to leave teaching altogether.

    We have to tell it like it is. This is not ok. This is a loss. This is, really, a theft of services by a state government determined to cut back on what public schools offer our children. And it is not, not, not ok.

  3. Hi, I read all this with mixed emotions – delight at such an outpouring of support for the library in question mingled with the usual conflicting feelings about how in a sense every time something like this happens it perpetuates the “Big Society” illusion that acts of goodwill on the part of volunteers can replace a professional, staffed library service.

    I’m from Manchester UK, and blog regularly on my own work in a school library. I have 5 hours a week to serve the needs of 230 children, and my problem is that people are all too willing to give books, but there’s nowhere for the kids to read them and no time for them to use the library.

    From a recent post…

    It’s the third week of term, and I’m simultaneously running a library, a Puffin Book Club catalogue order and a Travelling Book Fair. It was never part of my plan to hold the book fair this week – I booked a summer date a year in advance, but somehow it never reached the appropriate diary. I had to reschedule at two weeks’ notice.

    After protracted negotiations, I’ve managed to carve out a corner of the hall for the three bulky book trollies, and I need to do my paperwork before the sale begins. I move out of the hall so they can set up for lunch. In the Reception Area, my library stock fights for space with sports kit deliveries awaiting processing, carrier bags overflowing with donations, break-out groups and contractors who’ve arrived on the wrong day waiting to see the Head. As usual there are a dozen six year olds doing group work in there, who find me a fascinating distraction and would much rather chat about Horrid Henry than do their Words and Sounds, so I retreat to the staff room. There’s a break-out group going on in there too. I try the locker room, and find a member of staff attempting to make a phone call. I consider counting out my float sitting on the loo.

    It sounds perfect, a library in the Reception Area, doesn’t it? OFSTED inspectors love it, and it presses all the right accessibility buttons. In fact, it’s a complete nightmare. It’s a holding pen for everything that happens in the school – a second classroom for Y2, a constantly noisy conduit for up to 230 children, a changing room for 50 kids for after school activities; I could go on and on. Last week, without any warning, a teacher arrived with twelve children, sat them on the floor and started a lesson, effectively blocking off the entire non-fiction stock, when I already had two classes in wanting to browse. If you can call it browsing; they’re lucky to get ten minutes before someone’s coming in telling them they have to get back into the classroom.

    So, why don’t they come in at lunchtime? Well, yesterday said non-fiction stock was blocked off by half a dozen kids in various states of distress, needing first-aid after collisions in the overcrowded playground. You really feel a bit of a monster asking a sobbing Reception child to move over just so someone can dither between Where’s Wally? and 100 Facts about Dinosaurs, regardless of the educational value of taking control of personal reading choices – and besides when the child comes in you’re probably up in the staff room fetching an ice pack for the overstretched First Aider.

    Okay, what about after school? I don’t officially get paid after three o’clock, which didn’t stop me setting up a picture book stock two years ago and spending many patient months encouraging parents to come in and help the Nursery children and younger siblings pick their books. Except, you try getting a tired, shy or nervous four-year old to navigate all those cross-country runners and Y6 footballers wetting themselves laughing at the latest Princess Poppy books. Oh, the joys of multi-purpose accommodation.

    And that’s why I’ve had enough. It’s not lack of support. The Head praises me to the skies, the parents bring in books by the carrier bag load, they support the Book Fairs and they fundraise for the library stock. But nobody can actually see the books we’ve already got. There’s always someone, or something, in the way. The beautiful non-fiction titles I purchased with the last Book Fair commission in many cases haven’t once left the library shelves. Then there are the couple of hundred titles backed up in my cupboards, or my spare room, because there literally isn’t a time when I can stay in the area long enough to catalogue them. I’ve tried going in before school. I usually end up answering the door.

    Anyway, I’ll look through those cupboards hopefully there’ll be some new fiction coming your way!

  4. As one of the people who emailed to ask HOW this happened, I really appreciate this thoughtful post. I will definitely be remembering this the next time I step into a voting booth, too.

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