Libraries (and Librarians) Matter

First the good news: Today is the day to celebrate our Manchester Miracle! Just a few weeks ago, Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 had only 40 books in the fiction section of its library. Now, because of the incredible response of the networks we have built together through this grassroots public education movement, those bare shelves are teeming with books. And because the local community embraced this effort, the Manchester school library now has completely new paint, carpeting, lighting, furniture, circulation desk, and even student computers. The new space will be unveiled today at a ceremony open to the public at 3PM (1612 Manhattan Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15233).

In addition to the incredible list of volunteers and contributions we’ve already documented (see “The Manchester Miracle” for details), many other folks have recently stepped up to the plate. In consultation with the school’s teachers and students, Perlora interior designer Craig McDonald designed the new library, which will also feature murals donated by illustrator Dave Klug (you have seen his work in Highlights magazine, among other places). Much of the makeover occurred just this past week, courtesy of a group of Sam’s Club executives recruited by Manchester neighbor Kezia Ellison. Ms. Ellison runs an organization called Educating Teens, Inc., which also roped in CORO Pittsburgh’s NEXT Leaders Northside program to launch a new “Manchester Reads” project.

“Manchester Reads” will recruit mentors from the community to read to students at the school. Ellison also plans to use images of local adults reading their favorite books on a series of outdoor posters that kids will see to “drive home the point that people they know and live near them enjoy reading.” They will also have middle school students reading to elementary students, to reinforce skills and serve as role models. And the program will recruit volunteers to assist with library circulation during the week.

This is going to be an amazing program and much of this work is far beyond what even a well-resourced school library could ordinarily manage. But that last item – recruiting volunteers to assist with circulation – points to the much bigger underlying problem of inadequate funding and staffing in our school libraries.

And so the not-so-good-news: Here in Pittsburgh, only 14 out of 51 schools currently have a full time librarian. Most of the district’s librarians have five schools assigned to them, which means that students are only getting a professional librarian at their school one day per week. That librarian can’t see every kid in a school on a single day, which means that most students are really only getting to their library once every few weeks at best. In some schools, shelves are stacked with gorgeous books that essentially cannot be checked out, hostage to insufficient staffing. But the problem goes far beyond merely getting books into students’ hands. We have forgotten the real, tangible educational benefit of having school librarians.

Want some evidence? A new study released yesterday finds that students in our state with access to a full-time, certified school librarian have far better educational outcomes. Researchers from the Colorado based RSL Research Group looked at Pennsylvania’s standardized test scores (the PSSA) in reading and writing and tracked student achievement against five school library factors: staffing, collections, digital resources and technology infrastructure, library access, and funding. [Education Law Center Library Report, 10-23-12] By far the most important factor was having a full-time library professional. In other words, it’s great to have all those new books and digital collections and a space open for classroom teachers to take their students when time allows, but without a full-time librarian in each of our schools, we are still short-changing our kids.

Here are some highlights from the report that ought to make all of us concerned about equity and our racial achievement gap sit up and take notice:

  • Students who have access to a full-time, certified librarian scored higher on the PSSA Reading Test than those students who do not have such access. This finding is true for all students, regardless of their socio-economic, racial/ethnic, and/or disability status.
  • For several student groups that tend to experience achievement gaps—economically disadvantaged, Hispanic, Black, and those with IEPs (Individualized Education Programs)—Reading and Writing results are markedly better when those students attend a school with a librarian and library support staff, according to the research. In fact, they benefit more proportionally than the general student population.
  • Nearly twice as many high school students who have access to a full-time, certified librarian scored Advanced on the PSSA Writing test as those students without access to a full-time, certified librarian, according to the report.
  • Considering all students, those students with access to a full-time, certified librarian are almost three times as likely to have “Advanced” scores on the PSSA Writing Test as those students without access to a full-time, certified librarian.

This is apparently the first time anyone has tracked the impact of librarians on student’s writing, and the results suggest just how short sighted it is to slash library budgets. Debra Kachel, Pennsylvania School Librarians Association Legislation Committee Co-Chairperson, explained, “The overall findings fit with research we’ve seen in other states—access to a full-time, certified school librarian significantly impacts students achievement in reading.” And she noted that the new data on student writing “underscores the larger impact having a full-time, certified school librarian has on skills, such as writing, that prepare students for college and the workforce.” Nancy Potter, Education Law Center Attorney, agreed that reducing library resources “has extreme consequences for Pennsylvania’s public school students, especially the most vulnerable students.” [Education Law Center Library Report, 10-23-12]

If you would like to learn more about this new study of libraries and public education, please join the Pennsylvania School Library Project on Thursday, November 15, 2012 at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead at 5PM. (More information and registration here.) In the meantime, I plan to go celebrate our Manchester Miracle today and hope to see you there!

16 thoughts on “Libraries (and Librarians) Matter

  1. It’s my first year as a parent in the PGH public schools and I was astounded by how small the library is at my son’s school. Then, when I found out he will only see the librarian once a month, I was even more astounded! It’s so different from the 2 on-staff librarians and once a week library visits I remember in the huge library at my own elementary school…I’m glad this study brings light to such issues!

    • Thank YOU, Jane, for all you do — for the students and for public education. We have to just keep saying this to all of our networks, and help each other understand what is at stake. We can’t let public schools be the boiled frog — and allowing libraries and librarians to be cut is one of those incremental steps that warms the water. If we don’t pay attention now, we will have cooked frogs (and schools).

  2. Jessie, thanks for your diligence in reporting on the local libraries. My understanding, from a former teacher in this building, is that the library at Northview Elementary (now closed), is filled with books, so many books that there was not enough shelf space for them. How can we find out if those books are still sitting in a library that no one will use this year? If they are there, how can we move them out to the PPS libraries that need them?

    • Darlene, I understand that the District is working to move books from now-closed schools to the newly re-opened school libraries, such as Manchester. I know that this has happened already with some books. I would love to see the District respond to some of these questions and lay out its plan for school libraries. There are still many concerns, especially around adequate staffing. Our school librarians don’t even know if they will have jobs next year.

  3. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make all parents know how much power rests in their hands to make change within their city and their schools. School Libraries make enormous change in children’s lives and in PSSA scores, as Jessie reports. I would love to see a viral campaign of parents calling, writing and storming the Harrisburg politicians’ offices– without relent!! until a Librarian is in each and every school Library. We know it is right and we know our kids need it. If even 1 in 5 parents called their State Senators and said, “This is not acceptable and I simply won’t support you if you don’t get out and lead on this issue,” or “Thank you for your support of school librarians in every school– now how can I partner with you to ensure each school has one next year?” I believe change would be made.

    • The decision to have a library and librarian at every Pittsburgh Public School is a District decision, right? The new PPS Educational Delivery Model allocated a librarian for every school 1 day/ week. They could have chosen to fund a full time librarian in all schools if they wanted to.
      If District administration gets more state funding, will they use it for libraries. I doubt it. Unless we put pressure on the District and elect Board members that agree with the importance of school library access.
      I have 2 kids… has been to the library once. The other, not yet. It’s so sad.

      • Yes, this is a District level decision, complicated by funding. But we have to put the pressure on PPS to make the right choices here. The new Equity plan is the right way to frame this, and we need to be talking about it with the administration and board at EVERY possible venue. EVERY time equity is mentioned, we need to be there talking about libraries as the perfect example of equity choices. That means people need to come to the PIIN town hall meeting on November 29 when PPS will be there; and at PPS equity meetings; and any time A+ has a community meeting; and at school board meetings. There are lots of “Yinzercators” — we just need to be sure someone is there and makes it known that Yinzer Nation is watching and asking questions. That also means that when folks are at a meeting, they need to speak up and say, “I’m from the Yinzercation grassroots movement … this is the kind of equity issue we are talking about.” Let’s identify ourselves so that there is a “WE” — that way “WE” can keep putting the pressure on this issue.

  4. Im trying to do a donation thing for my daughters school Libra ry. Its prety much tha same situation. No comps, a shelf of books. Thats it. My email is email with how I can help my daughters school library the same way u did. I put a posting on craigslist needing books. What other things can I do?

  5. Hi, Jeremy– work with the school librarian to develop an Amazon list and then mobilize your friends, room parents, your daughter’s friends, to bring in good quality needed books to donate. Ask kids to consider doing fund raisers for their school libraries. Start a birthday book club with the librarian so instead of cupcakes for class birthdays, library books get donated from the Amazon list. Ask your librarian if you can volunteer in the Library. Refer your friends to Yinzercation and ask that they make one phone call a week each to their legislator in favor of schools and school libraries. Ask the librarian what she wants for her library and stretch out in a hundred ways to advocate for her. Good luck!

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