Libraries are back in the news. Or to be more precise: old news about school libraries is getting some new attention. And it’s evidence of the power of our grassroots movement as we literally change the conversation here in Southwest Pennsylvania, keeping the focus on equity in learning resources for our students.
Back in October, we reported on a new study that found 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] The report concluded that by far the most important factor was having a full-time library professional and that the effects were particularly large for groups that tend to experience achievement gaps, including African American students, low income students, and those with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). [See “Libraries (and Librarians) Matter” for details.]
Just yesterday the Post-Gazette picked up this story and it has already been shared more than 950 times on Facebook and Twitter. [Post-Gazette, 11-26-12] The fact that the paper’s education reporter (and the editors) chose to run this article now, more than a month after the study came out, suggests that they see continued public interest in the topic – interest that we have helped to cultivate by keeping the spotlight on equity issues in school libraries. And if the Post-Gazette thought people would take notice, they were right: the number of people sharing the story on social media is many, many times larger than a typical education piece and it has generated a vigorous on-line discussion in the comments section.
The article also comes on the heels of another library story in last week’s paper, featuring the ongoing ripples of our Manchester Miracle. After seeing our call to action for that school library, Keith Harrison, an English teacher at Baldwin High School, worked with his students to organize a book drive. They wound up collecting 1,300 volumes and also wanted to volunteer their time. Since the Pittsburgh Manchester K-8 library was already well under way to its glorious reconstruction, our fearless public school librarian Sheila May-Stein suggested they turn their attention to another ailing school library at Pittsburgh Carmalt in the Brookline neighborhood. Two weeks ago, Mr. Harrison and 40 Baldwin students spent an entire day at Carmalt helping to clean the library, catalog all the new books, and stock the shelves. [Post-Gazette, 11-21-12]
These stories not only highlight the continued impact of our grassroots movement, but also point to the underlying equity issues. As we’ve said many times, it’s great to have all those new books 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. Professional librarians do far more than check out books. They get to know hundreds of students in their schools; they work closely with classroom teachers to design lesson plans; they teach critical digital information searching skills; they run reading clubs, and much more. As this most recent study clearly found, librarians are even more significant for our most struggling students, yet these are often the very kids forced to go without books, staff, or space.
As we’ve seen with these latest draconian state budget cuts, libraries and librarians are some of the first learning resources that get the axe when districts are forced to make tough choices. And Pittsburgh is hardly alone: last year 56% of all public schools in Pennsylvania did not have a full-time librarian. [Post-Gazette, 11-26-12] Yet people care about their libraries and believe that children should have access to their resources. In fact, it was the threat of losing school librarians that catalyzed many in this grassroots movement into action last fall. Perhaps that should not come as a surprise here in the birthplace of Andrew Carnegie’s free public libraries, where local residents actually voted to raise their own taxes last fall to support the system.
In any case, libraries offer a tangible and crystal clear example of the challenges facing our public schools. People understand empty bookshelves and can wrap their heads around the fight to fill them more quickly than digesting the policy weeds of state politics. But libraries also offer the perfect entrée into understanding the consequences of state budget cuts and decisions made by legislators far away in Harrisburg. That’s another reason why keeping the library story in the public dialogue has been so important for our movement.
And our Manchester Miracle is a story that just keeps on giving – like the people who keep on giving. The latest news is from the small town of Parkersburg, Iowa, that was flattened by an F-5 tornado back in 2008. With a population of only 1,800 people, the town rebuilt and decided to re-imagine their school’s purpose, giving back to the world that helped them to recover after the disaster. Sheila May-Stein reports that Parkersburg collected and mailed at considerable expense eight giant boxes of books for Manchester: “They included handmade book marks, photos of the whole student population dressed in rainbow colors, a bound book of the children’s letters of encouragement to Manchester’s children, and a letter describing what their philosophy has become, and how they wanted to help Manchester’s kids.”
And speaking of donations to Manchester: Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley, PA gave three enormous boxes of brand-new, high-quality, hardcover children’s books. Sheila points out that they received “absolutely nothing from us” in return, yet Amazon.com has made over $13,000 from our Wish-List book drive and so far not responded to our requests for a single donation. (The fact that all our volunteers have been paying full retail prices benefiting a large corporation also points to problems arising from the District’s decision to eliminate a city-wide library coordinator: these books would have cost far less under contracts we previously had with school book distributors.) Perhaps if you are doing some holiday shopping this year in the Sewickley area, you might consider dropping into the Penguin Bookshop with your business – and tell them thanks for supporting public education.
Meanwhile, give yourself a big thank you, too, for keeping school libraries in the public eye where they can tell our story. This is how we know the grassroots is working.
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