Although I’d heard the stories about other districts that were eliminating librarians in favor of paraprofessionals and even closing school libraries, at my high school of approximately 4,300 students, we had four libraries with four full-time certified librarians and three paraprofessionals to assist us. Our department’s large district office was located at our school and employed two full-time support staff members, three people who worked on IT and equipment, and a K-12 Coordinator of Library Media Services devoted solely to administering the library program. Our libraries had ample storage and workspace, and the librarians’ schedules were flexible so we could meet with teachers to collaborate during their planning time. All of our middle schools had certified librarians, with some even having paraprofessionals to assist them, and about half of the elementary schools were staffed by certified librarians. Some elementary schools had paraprofessionals running the school libraries, but for the most part we were able to provide a great level of service and instruction to the students and staff in our district.
However, starting in 2010 after we hired a new superintendent who had eliminated almost all of the librarians in his former district, we began shedding certified and professional staff positions as people retired or were laid off and reassigned to different schools. By the 2014-2015 school year, we were down to seven certified librarians from about fourteen in 2004. In addition, many library paraprofessionals had either been transferred to other departments or to staff the school libraries where there had once been certified librarians, so the remaining librarians were by and large working without support staff. We had also lost much of our department’s real estate at the high school and almost all of its office support and IT staff.
Then last May, when Reduction in Force notices went out in our district with a grand total of 233 pink slips and over 90 job eliminations, we found out that they were not planning to lay off certified librarians but instead to completely eliminate five of the seven remaining positions. They were keeping two certified librarians at the high school, but I heard through the grapevine that if it weren’t for NEASC they would have eliminated all of the librarians. This leaves the Brockton Public Schools with two certified librarians for a district of 23 schools serving approximately 17,500 students, over 80% of whom come from low-income households.
At around the same time we received this news in Brockton, I was hearing that the Malden and Whitman school districts had also eliminated all of their school librarians except for those at the high school. In addition, Springfield, which has a progressive union contract provision requiring a certified librarian in every school, was considering going to ¼-time librarians in most of their schools.
Fran Murphy was wrong: there is an emergency in the school library, and it’s national in scope. What we are seeing is a rapidly accelerating loss of school libraries and librarians, and although it is not confined there, this loss is especially pronounced in low-income school districts that serve high numbers of students of color. Last July, School Library and Information Technologies Professor Debra Kachel of Pennsylvania’s Mansfield University published an article entitled “The Calamity of the Disappearing School Libraries” that illustrates this emergency state with some alarming statistics. Kachel reports that between 1991 and 2015, Philadelphia public schools have gone from having 176 certified librarians to just 10, and a large majority of the schools there do not even have functional libraries. In New York City the number of school libraries has been cut by more than half since 2005, while in Houston almost 50% of the school librarians have been cut since 2010. Ohio has cut more than 700 certified librarians in the last decade, and California has just 1 librarian for every 7000 students.
Despite all the studies that have been done in the past dozen years or so proving the impact of professionally staffed school libraries on student achievement, we are consistently put on the chopping block when funding is tight. Looking to the cause of the emergency for help -- the administrators and bureaucrats who keep cutting us because they can only see libraries as expensive spaces full of outdated books and old-fashioned librarians -- has clearly not been working in many districts. Since this trend does not seem to be reversing any time soon, I’ve been reconsidering how to advocate for our programs and students and have been trying a number of different tactics this past year.
Like many other school librarians, I’ve done some traditional advocacy work in my own district. When they laid off a number of librarians and closed two of the four libraries at the high school in 2010, several of us spoke together at a school committee meeting and provided handouts with information to the school committee members about the positive impact of school libraries on student achievement. This did not prevent the layoffs, but there were some call backs for the next school year. Then in the winter of 2013, the principal of a new district evening program for at-risk and older students proposed putting up a wall and taking almost half of my library’s space for offices for his staff. When the superintendent was visiting to explore possibilities for reconfiguring the library, I argued passionately against taking this library space away from the students and teachers in the day school program, and followed up with a detailed memo addressed to her and other high level district administrators about how the space was being used by the over 4000 students and their teachers in our day program, and what it would mean to them to lose that space as well as how it might impact our NEASC accreditation rating. In a compromise, the night school program was given my storage and work room for office space, but at least we were able to save the library space for the students instead of giving it over for staff offices.
In addition to advocating when crisis situations have occurred, all along I have advocated for libraries and certified librarians by striving to make the library and what we do relevant and useful for the students, teachers, and district. I’ve worked on a variety of school and district committees, collaborated with many teachers, supported the implementation of our IB program, served for over 10 years as the book club advisor, helped students publish articles in the local paper, and developed and taught a variety of technology professional development workshops for my colleagues, including volunteering my time on a Saturday every year to teach workshops for our district’s annual technology conference. Two years ago I responded to an invitation from one of my colleagues to create and teach an in-district professional development course leading to three graduate credits offered through Fitchburg. The entire course was designed around technology and research, and a variety of teachers enrolled in it, including kindergarten, ELL, and special education teachers. My certified colleagues and I have also been striving to provide the same level of service during the school day that we did when we had double the staff. However, despite all of our efforts to show that we can provide digital and information literacy instruction for students and professional development for educators using digital technologies, the district leadership decided last spring that computer lab teachers were the ones they needed to keep in order to teach digital literacy skills, so they assigned them the task of teaching digital literacy and eliminated librarians.
After I found out last May that they were eliminating so many of our certified librarians, I went into an “emergency response” advocacy mode. Although we were not the only department to receive so many eliminations, since our department had already been cut so severely over the past five years, it felt like a fatal blow.
I started out with the more traditional advocacy routes. The week after we found out the librarian positions were being eliminated, I decided to attend a school committee meeting and spoke in the open comments period before the meeting. I related to the school committee how shocked we were when we found out that they had eliminated so many of the librarians and said that I was not speaking out of concern for my job but out of concern for the loss of libraries. Most of my discussion centered on the difference between professional librarians and paraprofessionals and how there is a clear and undeniable difference in the education, skills, and training between a paraprofessional and a certified librarian with a master’s degree, emphasizing that we help with college and career readiness by focusing on reading, technology, and research skills. I ended by inviting the entire school committee to visit my library to see what we do, though none of them ever took me up on it.
A few weeks later, I attended and spoke about school libraries in the context of a PARCC community forum at Bridgewater State University. The panel was composed of Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members, the Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester, and Secretary of Education James Peyser. A large audience was in attendance, most of whom were there to speak against the PARCC exams replacing MCAS. I discussed the cuts in Brockton and told them because we don’t have enough funding, we were closing libraries and eliminating librarians in favor of adding technology to give standardized exams. I also criticized the PARCC exam’s “research simulation” questions, explaining that these questions do not simulate the deep and evaluative critical thinking skills needed for the type of authentic research they will need to do in college.
Then in early July, I attended the NEA’s annual Representative Assembly (RA) in Orlando, Florida with over 7,000 NEA members from around the country. It was the first time I attended this national meeting where NEA policy direction and other business is decided for the coming year. Every morning our state delegation caucused to discuss and debate upcoming business for the day. In our first caucus meeting, one of our NEA directors explained that we could submit New Business Items (NBIs) for the RA to consider up until noon of the third day.
I decided to spend the next day working on an NBI about school libraries. The idea came to me from several posts that New York school librarian and NEA member Susan Polos had made on Facebook about the lack of mention of school libraries and librarians in the NEA’s Opportunity Dashboard, a document the NEA was asking Congress to include in its reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA). In my own local union, the leadership had told me earlier in the year that we couldn’t do anything to challenge the replacement of certified librarians with paraprofessionals because past practice had allowed it. It seemed to me as though we were invisible and unimportant not only in our districts but even within our own unions, where we pay dues and need representation just like everyone else. Frustrated with our unions’ lack of attention to what is happening to our field, my goal at the RA was to compel the NEA to see us, to acknowledge what is happening to our profession and to library access for our neediest students, and to begin to help us.
I started out writing an NBI requiring the NEA to add access to fully qualified, certified librarians and well-resourced libraries to the Opportunity Dashboard, but later decided to submit two NBIs. The first one (#89) tasked the NEA with conducting a detailed study on the loss of school librarians and libraries within the NEA and reporting the findings through existing NEA online channels. The purpose of #89 was to support the idea of the Opportunity Dashboard by helping the NEA and lawmakers assess where students were and were not being provided the opportunities afforded by having certified school librarians and well-resourced libraries. The idea for this one came from the work that the MSLA is doing with the Massachusetts legislature to study the state of school libraries here. The second one (#103) required the NEA to add language about access to libraries with fully qualified librarians to the Opportunity Dashboard.
Our state delegation agreed to sponsor my two NBIs, and I submitted them on July 5th, the second to last day of the RA. All of the RA delegates received the text of my NBIs the morning of July 6th, and that day I connected with librarians from all over the country who were happy to see these NBIs in support of school libraries. I spent most of that day networking with other librarians and writing out what I would say when I presented my NBIs to the entire RA delegation. Several librarians and teachers volunteered to speak in favor of the NBIs, and we even employed a sophisticated floor strategy where there are some people standing at microphones ready to yield the mike to other people at other microphones who have prepared statements of support.
We finally got to NBI #89 in the afternoon. I had three minutes to present my case for adoption and then it moved to debate. Since #89 was estimated to cost $36,500 and was coming late in the RA when delegates were starting to worry about the impact of NBIs on dues, the money was questioned. Some wondered why the NEA should spend money conducting such a study since similar studies have already been undertaken by ALA and AASL. When debate was closed and a voice vote was taken, it was so close that they had to call for division, which is where people stand to show their votes. Although the final vote in division was still close, NBI #89 was approved by the delegates and the study is being undertaken by NEA this year.
NBI #89: Adopted As Modified
Using existing resources, NEA will conduct a study of student access to fully qualified school librarians/media specialists and well-resourced libraries/learning commons throughout the NEA. This study shall be published through digital channels and include, but not be limited to, information on the following topics:
1. Current state laws regarding school libraries and staffing.
2. Staffing patterns in school libraries by grade level and state: fully qualified, education support personnel, and/or volunteers.
3. The ratio of professionally qualified school librarians to students, by state.
4. The number and grade levels of professionally qualified school librarian positions that have been eliminated using the last 10 most recent years of available data by state.
5. The number and grade levels of schools that have closed their libraries entirely, by state.
6. A breakdown of access to school librarians and libraries by income and demographic data.
NBI #103: Adopted
Using existing NEA resources, NEA will amend and electronically publish its ESEA Reauthorization “Opportunity Dashboard” to include access to fully qualified school librarians/media specialists as a category of “Quality Educators” and access to libraries and library/media studies as a part of “Quality Schools.”
Since returning from Orlando, I have continued to actively advocate for librarians and libraries. Later in July I went to Washington DC with a group that lobbied the offices of Massachusetts lawmakers, and I always mentioned the loss of school libraries and librarians in our conversations. At the end of the summer just before school started, I researched the regulations for paraprofessionals in Title 1 schools because my district had put a job ad out over the summer for library paraprofessionals to take the professional positions that had been eliminated. One of the job requirements in the ad was to “conduct library classes.” I have never understood why it is acceptable to replace certified librarians with paraprofessionals and expect them to teach classes but not to replace other certified teachers with paraprofessionals. My research led me to conclude that this practice is likely a violation of federal regulations, which state that instructional paraprofessionals are to serve in an instructional support role in school libraries and are to be directly supervised by certified teachers. I have brought this regulation to my union president’s attention and have also sent it to the MTA. I am hoping that the MTA will have its legal department look into this possible violation of federal education regulations on behalf of all the students in the state who are being denied the services of a licensed, professionally trained librarian-teacher, just because we are so easy to cut and there are no laws requiring us in the schools.
In addition to employing traditional advocacy avenues in our schools, districts, local governments, and state legislatures, reaching out to our unions for help is an area of advocacy that those of us who are working in public schools should begin to explore more. Framing access to well-resourced school libraries staffed by fully qualified, certified librarians as a matter of social and economic justice within our unions is a powerful way to address the issue in cash-strapped districts where libraries and librarians are increasingly becoming seen as an unaffordable luxury for students who need them the most.
Unions that have already developed a focus around social justice issues such as the Seattle Education Association and the Chicago Teachers Union understand this issue of equitable access and are willing to fight for their school libraries and librarians. The Massachusetts Teachers Association has been moving towards a more social justice orientation. On Columbus Day weekend, I marched with an MTA contingent in the annual social activist HONK! festival parade while holding a sign saying “Less Testing More Reading @ your school library” and met fellow MSLA member Erin Dalbec, who had a sign saying “Less Testing More Reading for Pleasure.” It was so great to meet another MSLA member at this event!
Educators in many other cities and states around the country are pushing their unions to move in the direction of social and economic justice. It’s time for those of us who work in Massachusetts public school libraries to do the same. By advocating through and within our unions to raise awareness about the social and economic justice issues attached to school libraries, perhaps we will finally gain more support for our programs and profession so that all students may benefit from having a great school library and librarian to call their own.
Kachel, Debra. “The Calamity of the Disappearing School Libraries.” The Conversation. Web. 27 Sep. 2015.
“Massachusetts Policies for Instructional Paraprofessionals in Title I Programs: Implementation of NCLB’s
Paraprofessional Requirements.” Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, July 2003. Web. 27 Sept. 2015.
“NEA Opportunity Dashboard.” NEA. National Education Association, n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2015
“New Business Item 89.” 2015 NEA Annual Meeting. National Education Association, n.d. Web. 27 Sep. 2015.
“New Business Item 103.” 2015 NEA Annual Meeting. National Education Association, n.d. Web. 27 Sep. 2015.
Sue Doherty is a School Librarian at Brockton High School