Learning without librarians?
May 26, 2009 · 2:50 PM
Leisa Fowler isn’t much taller than most of the students who come into Snoqualmie Middle School’s library. She’s been the school’s part-time librarian for 18 years. She also teaches sixth grade literature part time.
Before taking over the school’s library, she taught special education for six years in Snoqualmie Valley, and has 30 years of teaching experience.
“This just seemed to be where I could make the biggest impact because I got to know every child,” Fowler said, before reminding students entering the library during lunch to keep their voices down.
Next year, she will be teaching in a classroom full time.
The Snoqualmie Valley School District is cutting all certified librarians from its middle schools and Mount Si High School as part of nearly $4.1 million in budget cuts. The librarians say they are more beneficial in libraries, where they can enhance an entire school’s academic program. School officials say the move will keep classroom sizes smaller.
Eliminating certified librarians came as a shock for Fowler and her colleagues.
Two of the four librarians are being laid off; the other two, including Fowler, are returning to classroom teaching full time.
A librarian’s job nowadays goes far beyond keeping the library’s doors open or checking books in and out.
Certified librarians teach students “21st century skills — or information literacy: how do you look for, evaluate and even create information?” according to Eliza Dresang, the Beverly Cleary Professor in Children and Youth Services at the University of Washington’s Information School.
Students draw information from a wide range of formats in school libraries today — books, periodicals, electronic databases and digital multimedia, among many others. But not all information is created equally, and students increasingly rely on the Internet for sources of information.
“You’re removing a person whose job is to prepare kids for the world they’re going into and to teach them how to maneuver through all the information around them and create it themselves,” Dresang said. Before becoming a professor, she oversaw public school libraries in Madison, Wisc.
School districts are increasingly recognizing that these skills are vital for success in the “information age,” Dresang said.
The number of secondary schools with full-time librarians increased from 81 percent in 2000 to 92 percent in 2004, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Classroom teachers don’t have the time to focus on teaching these skills or stay up with developments and new sources because they have to focus on their subjects’ content.
“Removing librarians from the library is tantamount to opening the pool but firing the lifeguard: our children will drown in the information glut of the future,” said Christie Kaaland, a professor at Seattle’s Antioch University and a member of the Washington Library Media Association.
The cuts are taking the district “back to the early ‘80s,” said Janna Treisman, the librarian at Chief Kanim Middle School and a founding member of the precursor to the Snoqualmie Valley Schools Foundation.
“Having librarians in the school libraries is the most beneficial use of teacher time right now,” she said.
Certified librarians, such as Treisman, enhance the effectiveness of classroom teachers’ efforts.
“Right now I’m working with a seventh grade teacher who’s teaching the Punic Wars and another who’s teaching the Pig Wars and Whitman Massacre,” she said.
While the classroom teachers are focused on their courses’ content, she works with students on analyzing and presenting the information they find — skills transferable to many areas of life.
Keeping Chief Kanim’s library collection and in line with the school’s curriculum is a year-round process for Treisman, who orders new materials every couple months.
She subsidizes her small budget for new material by applying for grants, which she won’t have time to do next year as a classroom teacher.
“I wish I had some communication with the district on this at all,” Treisman said.
The district does not have a plan for how secondary school libraries will operate next school year, according to Assistant Superintendent Don McConkey.
Several district officials have speculated that student and parent volunteers will keep them open, but their programs will be greatly reduced, and no certified librarians will be in the libraries.
The secondary schools’ principals and McConkey discussed the issue at a meeting, Wednesday, May 20.
The choice was a tradeoff between a school’s library program and class sizes, said Randy Taylor, Mount Si High School’s principal.
The average class size at MSHS next year will be between 30 and 32, and would be up to 33 if librarians had been kept, he said.
Keeping class sizes from growing was the primary concern of respondents to a survey of budget reduction priorities by the district in March.
However, the district did not ask questions about how respondents felt about library programs, several librarians said.
The suggestion for cutting librarians came from the secondary school principals, according to school board members.
Discussion on the cuts took place “within the confines of the administrative team in the district,” said Taylor.
The budget reduction plan was finalized by Superintendent Joel Aune and approved by the school board in April.
Based on statements by Taylor and district officials, cutting librarians was seen as better than cutting classroom teachers.
What librarians teach is not a part of the school’s core academic program, said McConkey.
The district has repeatedly said no academic programs are being cut because of the budget reductions. But by cutting librarians the district is cutting the only employees trained in up-to-date information sciences.
There is a direction correlation between having teacher librarians and students’ test scores, according to studies over the past decade in 18 states and one Canadian province.
No officials involved in the district’s discussions said they are familiar with these studies.
The state now considers teacher librarians to be necessary in public schools. The position was included in the state’s redefinition of “basic education” — which the state is constitutionally required to pay for — in the recent legislative session. However, the new definition, and the money to pay for it, won‘t take effect until 2011 at the earliest.
The district’s budget woes are likely to continue for at least another year.
“Then if that’s the case, then we don’t see [the library media program] coming back next year,” said Taylor.