September 2010, Week 4


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Thu, 23 Sep 2010 00:03:12 -0400
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A Librarian in Every School, Books in Every Home

Rethinking Schools
Summer 2010


A Librarian in Every School, Books in Every Home: A Modest

by Bob Peterson

This spring, within a week's time, two things happened that
made me angry. The first was the release of scores from the
National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) that
showed African American 4th graders in Wisconsin (most of
whom live in Milwaukee) had the lowest reading scores in the
nation. Despite the limitations of such tests, the results
confirmed what many educators already knew: Way too many
Milwaukee children are not reading at an acceptable level.

The second was the district's announcement of major cuts to
local school budgets for next year. At the 400-student
elementary school where I work, the projected cuts meant
that, despite a modest increase in student enrollment, we
had to cut an additional staff position. Given that in the
past few years budget cuts had forced us to eliminate the
music teacher, gym teacher, program implementor, half a
secretarial position, and all of our regular classroom
teaching assistants, we had little choice but to eliminate
our librarian position. Similar cuts occurred throughout the
Milwaukee schools, so it's likely that next year the nearly
100 elementary and K-8 schools in the district will have
only five full-time librarians.

The local media and policy makers expressed "outrage" on the
first matter but ignored the second. The Milwaukee Journal
Sentinel called for "greater accountability," "firing bad
teachers," "linking teacher pay to performance," and a
number of other proposals. Local talk show hosts and
columnists echoed the paper's calls. Ignored was any
recognition that the nearly 55 percent jobless rate in parts
of the black community might impact children's lives.

But, most tellingly, there was not one mention of libraries
or librarians, or the need for children to have books in
their homes.

Such silence is unconscionable. According to researcher and
linguistics expert Stephen Krashen:

Research shows school libraries are related to better
reading achievement. The reason for this is obvious:
Children become better readers by reading more, and for many
children, the library is the only place they have access to

Moreover, research by Jeff McQuillan has confirmed that
access to books is strongly related to performance on the
NAEP exam for 4th graders, even when researchers control for
the effects of poverty.

During spring break I met with my principal and a parent who
is on the school governance council, and we agreed to call a
public meeting about the lack of librarians. Although we are
concerned about our librarian position, we recognize that
all children deserve a librarian in their school. Thus our
call for the meeting talked of the need to work for a
"librarian in every school."

The day after spring break, the 4th- and 5th-grade teachers
explained the potential loss of our librarian to our
students. We invited them to form a club to address the
issue. I met twice with 12 students in the week before the
community meeting. After a brief discussion of why
librarians are so important, the students decided to call
their club the Rescue Our Librarians Club.

I explained that our school budget was $51,000 short of what
we would need to have a librarian. We then moved into the
"What can we do?" section of the meeting. A couple of
children suggested writing letters to the president and the
governor, but most focused their attention on raising money.
Olivia, a 4th grader, confidently explained that on a good
day she can make $20 at a lemonade stand. As others rushed
to start planning the sale, I asked the question, "How many
lemonade sales would that take us?"

"Lots," another student responded. I suggested we figure it
out. After some group long division we realized we would
have to run 2,550 lemonade stands. The lemonade idea was

I suggested that as many students as possible stay after
school on Friday to attend the community meeting (six did)
and see what ideas the parents had. The group wrote out a
statement with which to start the meeting, and Jalen, a 4th
grader, volunteered to read it:

    We are the future of America. We are students at La
    Escuela Fratney who formed the Rescue Our Librarians
    Club - the RLC. We want the budget cuts to stop so we
    can keep our library and librarian. Some adults say
    `Read a lot, don't watch TV,' but then they take away
    our library. That's not good. . . . It's not fair if a
    school doesn't have a librarian. And it's not fair if
    some schools have a librarian and others don't. We want
    to help other students and schools to have their own
    librarians, too.

The children from several classes made posters and the club
members wrote a poem that explained why having a library
doesn't work without a librarian.

    A Library Without a Librarian

    A library without a librarian is like

    A beehive without bees

    A tree without leaves

    A brownie without chocolate

    A forest without trees

    A head without a brain

    A book without words

    An ocean without water

    A bird without wings

    A zebra without stripes

    A tailor without clothes

    A barber without scissors

    Blood without iron

    A bank without money

    A fish without gills

    A turtle without a shell

    All these things are bad, but a

    library without a librarian is worse.

    Written by members of the Rescue Our Librarians Club at
    La Escuela Fratney.

The community meeting, attended by 75 people - including
librarians, parents, students, university faculty, and
concerned community members - discussed an array of possible
immediate, medium, and long-range actions.

The most interesting proposal, from my point of view, was
the idea that we should demand that the federal government -
as part of its planned ESEA reauthorization - include
funding for a full-time librarian in every public school
with 200 children or more, plus outreach librarians in city
and county library systems to work with religious and
community organizations to increase the use of community

Back at the Rescue Our Librarians Club, we did some
calculations. Assuming that wages and benefits for a
librarian average $75,000 a year, and that there are 95,000
public schools in the United States, the government would
have to find $7,125,000,000 to ensure a librarian for every

"Wow, that's a lot!" one student exclaimed.

And it is. I directed the children to the website The Cost
of War (costofwar.com), where we discovered that the United
States spends nearly $300 million daily on the wars in Iraq
and Afghanistan. We figured out that funding all those
librarians for a year was equivalent to 25 days of war

It's too early to tell where the community meetings and the
Rescue Our Librarians Club will lead. But personally, I
can't stop dreaming about federal funding for school and
community librarians as part of the reauthorization of ESEA.
Let's see. We could ask that by 2014 or so, 100 percent of
all schools should have certified librarians and 100 percent
of public libraries should have expanded weekend hours. Now
there's a data-driven goal I could get behind. It would
provide nearly 100,000 jobs, promote countless hours of
lifelong learning and enjoyment to millions of people, and
most likely raise those 4th-grade test scores.

[Bob Peterson ([log in to unmask]), an editor of
Rethinking Schools, teaches 5th grade in the Milwaukee
Public Schools. For ongoing information about the campaign:
www.saveourlibrarians.org ] 


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