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Chicago Schools Flounder Without Librarians

Ravenswood Elementary, a North Side grammar school with 480 students, does not have a librarian or a computer lab assistant.

Instead, the teachers must be their own librarians and book police.

Once a week, according to Principal Heather Connolly, the teachers are scheduled to go up to the library for computer research or to check out library books. Each teacher is responsible for checking out books and making sure they are returned. As a result, the library books are starting to dwindle.

“We’re losing a lot of books,” Connolly said. “At the same time, some of our kids don’t have any other chances to read books, except if they had checked them out of the library, so we want to make sure they have the opportunity to do that.”

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Susan Conti, a special education teacher who has worked for eight years at Ravenswood, said she has seen changes since the school library lost its librarian.

“I don’t see my students carrying books around or reading books like they used to when we had a librarian,” she said.

Conti said there is no shortage of books, but students have limited access to them because of the lack of librarian.

“It’s really bad. And if you’ve been to our school and you see the library, we have thousands and thousands of books and they’re just sitting there,” Conti said.

In addition to the disappearing books, Connolly said that out of the 40 library computers that are available for the students, the majority of the computers are dated and don’t always work properly. She said most of the computers are from the year 2000 and some are even from the late 1990s.

“And we have all mismatched monitors. It’s just a hodgepodge of computers,” she said.

A two-year plan that highlights a school’s strengths and weaknesses is submitted to CPS by each Chicago public school. A section of the plan asks for a list of any internal factors that may have contributed to low student performance.

Ravenswood Elementary listed “No reading series available as well as not enough books for classroom libraries to launch reader’s workshop model” and “scarce financial resources” as two of their internal issues.

The school’s average for state testing was 67 percent for the 2008-2009 school year, below the state average of 75 percent for that same year. The school scored a D-minus on the CPS grading scale for the 2009-2010 school year.

Stephen Strottup, the president of Friends of Ravenswood, a fund-raising group connected to the school, said he thinks the outdated computers may have had an effect on the school’s standardized test scores.

“If the archaic computer resets itself, you’ve got to go back and start the whole test over again,” Strottup said.

But newer computers isn’t all the library is missing. Principal Connolly said having even a part-time librarian would take some of the pressure off teachers and would also provide additional researching skills for students.

“A librarian can direct students to resources,” she said. “A librarian can meet and collaborate with teachers about the curriculum and have the same things being enforced in library that are being enforced in the classroom.”

But getting a librarian would mean the school would lose a fine arts teacher, and since the school is a fine arts magnet school, Connolly said that just isn’t possible. She said her school is allowed only 70 funded teaching positions per school year.

“And if you take away from one to add to another, you lose that one,” she said.

CPS spokeswoman Monique Bond said often other teachers or assistant teachers will handle the responsibilities of a librarian in the Chicago public school system.

“They may have to — if there’s not a budgeted position for it, then they may have to rely on someone else to fulfill the responsibility,” Bond said. “We would of course want full-time librarians and to hire a dedicated librarian, but the budget constraints don’t allow us to do that.”

Kristine Mayle, a special education teacher and the financial secretary for the Chicago Teacher’s Union, said schools are often forced to choose between programs.

“It’s either ‘you’re going to get this,’ or ‘you’re going to get this.’ But you’re not entitled to both,” she said. “Which is ridiculous. Our kids should all have art, music, gym and library.”

At the last school Mayle worked, the administration chose to fund an extra teaching position and, as a result, was not to supply copy paper for the teachers.

“It’s like, ‘Should we chop off your arm or chop off your leg for that position?’ Do you want paper for the kids or do we want that extra teacher that’s going to bring our class sizes down and make sure we can service the kids?” Mayle said.

But not having the funding to equip public schools with a librarian may significantly hurt the overall success of a school.

Keith Curry Lance has done multiple state studies on the importance of libraries in schools. He conducted an Illinois study, “Powerful Libraries Make Powerful Learners,” in 2003.

The study, which looked at 657 schools statewide, found that one of the most important services a school librarian provides is providing additional learning materials for teachers.

In elementary and middle schools that had librarians to help the teachers, the study found that students in those schools had higher ISAT test scores in both reading and writing.

According to Jeremy Dunn, director of libraries and information services at CPS, the Illinois State Board of Education requires all state schools to have a staff library program. But, based on an inability to meet this requirement, schools can appeal through waiver opportunities.

“You’ll have schools that really don’t have a library program at all,” he said.

Dunn also said the state requirements allow for that because the school district can be waived by making the public library available to their students on a regular basis. Therefore, even though initially it would seem that all state schools are required to have a librarian, many in actuality do not.

“It starts out with a lot of teeth and ends up with not much teeth at all,” he said.

But actually funding a librarian’s position is a problem for many schools.

Gail Bush, president of the Illinois Library Association, said she thinks having a strong parent support group can make a big difference when a school wants to generate additional funding for library purposes.

She said higher poverty levels negatively impact the amount that families are able to donate to a school.

“There’s just a wide spectrum among the schools based on the parental support. It feels a little problematic sometimes because you feel that there are inequities,” Bush said.

During the 2009-2010 school year, almost 73 percent of Ravenswood School students were low-income. Connolly said that number is now closer to 77 percent.

Bush said schools will often share a librarian in order to save on money.

“They could also have somebody who is able to do one of the specials-the music or the art-and have them get a library endorsement,” Bush said. “There are creative ways of looking at this. There are creative ways of scheduling music and art and library.”

Bush pointed out that grants are available to schools that may not have the necessary funds to staff a full or part-time librarian.

The School Library Grant Program is available through the state of Illinois and provides more library books and materials, including computers, for public schools in Illinois.

In 2010, the program gave $1.3 million to 715 Illinois public schools through more than 3,400 school libraries.

Chicago public libraries also have several programs that offer after school help to students in the Chicago public school system.

Bernie Nowakowski, the director of children and young adult services at the Harold Washington Library Center, said Chicago public libraries often partner with CPS to develop programs for students.

“Our summer reading program reaches over 50,000 kids, which includes kids throughout the city from private schools and public schools, but the fact is we always make sure that Chicago public schools are aware of the program,” she said.

Teacher in the Library is another program where, for four days a week in 56 Chicago public libraries, a certified teacher is available to give after-school homework help to elementary students.

“In many cases those are CPS teachers or teacher librarians that we are hiring,” Nowakowski said.

According to Nowakowski, there used to be more after school research-oriented programs available to students. But the programs were not as effective as when students get research assistance in school while they’re working on a project, she said.

“As a former teacher, I know that the best way to teach research skills is not in a vacuum but to teach when children have the information that they need,” Nowakowski said.

Strottup, from Friends of Ravenswood, recently met with representatives from DeVry University to talk about potentially building new computers to replace the old, outdated ones at Ravenswood Elementary.

He said the program would provide the computers at a lower cost while giving the students a chance to learn some technical computer skills.

“It’s an interesting program that would be two-fold. It would actually teach some of our upper-grade kids a job skill and also provide computers for the school.”

Strottup said the cost per computer would be between $450 and $500.

Principal Connolly said she thinks that partnering with DeVry is a creative solution to the school’s computer situation.

“We’re looking at that option which is going to allow us to use current parts from our own computers that we can salvage and it’s going to bring down the cost quite a bit.”

While the updated computers will make for faster Internet researching and less problems during online student testing, Connolly still hopes that one day, if additional funding is secured, the school’s library will have a full-time librarian.

“A librarian teaches students not just how to check out books, but also information literacy and how to navigate websites,” Connolly said. “There’s no question that having a librarian is better.”

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