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 books.
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 shelved.
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 itsplanned 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 libraries.
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 school.
“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 spending.
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 (Contact Me), an editor of Rethinking Schools, teaches 5th grade in the Milwaukee Public Schools. For ongoing information about the campaign: www.saveourlibrarians.org.