In Chicago Public Schools, library void goes beyond one sit-in
Ohanian Comment: The good news is that the parents at Whittier Elementary have done what teachers, unions, university education departments, and professional organizations have failed to do: Demand a library for the children. And they put teeth in their demand by holding a sit-in vigil for more than a month, demanding a library.
Note that at Jones College Prep the library was replaced by a computer lab and "tutoring programs." College prep, indeed.
By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah
If they want to explore a wider world of books or get help with research from a trained librarian, children in Chicago often have to look beyond their school.
Many of the city's public schools lack libraries, a situation that made a group of mothers in Pilsen so angry they commandeered the ramshackle field house at Whittier Elementary School for more than a month.
The mothers won, and the Chicago school board is set to vote Wednesday on measures including a library for Whittier that should end the protest.
But the situation at Whittier is hardly unique. Citywide, 164 public schools ΓΆ€” nearly 1 in 4 elementary schools and 51 high schools ΓΆ€” do not have standalone libraries staffed by a trained librarian.
A lack of money and space and the competing need for new technology mean libraries are often left out of school plans even as students in Chicago Public Schools struggle to meet national standards in reading.
Even at those schools that do have a library, which by CPS' definition means at least one part-time teacher-librarian is on staff, the situation is sometimes far from ideal.
At Durkin Park Elementary School on the Southwest Side, half of a dank and windowless supply room doubles as a library. Only a few children can squeeze into the 12-foot-by-15-foot space, with barely any room to sit down to browse through a book.
"Yeah, I'm frustrated," says Durkin Park Principal Dan Redmond. "I know we're better off than most schools, but when I go to other schools (with better libraries) and I see what they have, it breaks my heart. It doesn't seem fair."
It's not just older neighborhood schools that go without libraries. Jones College Prep, a selective enrollment high school, is one of a handful of elite schools within CPS without a library. The school's library was replaced about five years ago with a classroom for computers and tutoring programs.
Principal Joseph Powers hopes a library will be included in a new $111 million building for the school that was approved last month.
"I feel like it's a deficiency for the school," Powers said. "A full-service library or media center can serve as an academic hub for the school. It becomes a place for strong student scholarship where kids go to get resources and learn from the expertise of the librarian or media specialist."
About one-quarter of the elementary schools without libraries and nearly half of the high schools without them ΓΆ€” 25 of the 51 ΓΆ€” are charter schools, according to the most recent data available.
Last week, district CEO Ron Huberman said he wishes all schools had a library. But with $7 billion in unmet building needs throughout the system, he said, it's just not possible.
"We're having to make do," he said. "That doesn't mean kids don't read, don't have books. It just means there's no designated space (for a library)."
Libraries became an integral part of the school experience after Congress approved $100 million for building and expanding school libraries through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.
But over time, principals confronted with crowded classrooms, the need for expensive and ever-changing educational computer software, and tighter budgets have replaced full-time librarians with part-timers and volunteers, and converted library space to other uses.
"There are many schools that have (only) classroom libraries because librarians have become a discretionary purchase," says Barbara Radner, director of the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University. "They've gone from being a school essential to now becoming perceived as an option."
In Illinois, the number of teacher librarians dropped almost 11 percent from 2004 to 2008, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Julie Walker, executive director of the Chicago-based American Association of School Librarians, said Illinois has seen greater losses of school librarians than other states because of significant cuts in funding for education.
Library advocates expect the economic downturn will cause further cuts to school libraries.
"It's not state law that schools have to have a librarian or school library," said Sarah Hill, a downstate school librarian and president-elect of the Illinois School Library Media Association. "So when schools are in a budget crisis and looking for ways to cut, principals see the school librarian as an easy place to cut."
Gail Bush, director of the school library program at National-Louis University, said librarians play a crucial role in the Internet age.
"In the 20th century, we had to answer questions when we did our research," Bush said. "In the 21st century, students now have to question the answer. Librarians are more important than ever before because students need to learn to account for the validity of the resource."
The Illinois State Board of Education requires school districts to provide a program of "library media services" but doesn't specify that schools need a library.
At CPS, teachers are "endorsed" through the state either as librarians or as working toward that designation through college courses, says Paul Whitsitt, CPS director of the office of Reading and Language Arts.
Because of CPS criteria for what constitutes a library, some schools that have book collections or even volunteers or classroom teachers who circulate books would not be included in the list of schools with libraries, he said.
Whitsitt said that since he has been overseeing the library program, both the number of teacher-librarian-staffed libraries and teacher librarians has stayed "fairly constant."
"While individual schools may gain or lose a librarian, we have not seen a big shift in the overall numbers," he said in an e-mail. "However, we do not have data yet for this school year, and of course are concerned that, given the district's difficult budget situation, these numbers could look different this year."
The lack of libraries at charter schools is chalked up to the fact that many operate out of buildings not designed as schools, so there is no space for a full library. But Katheryn Hayes, spokeswoman for the Renaissance Schools Fund, a private philanthropy that raises money for charter schools, said that doesn't mean charters are less committed to reading and research.
"Many schools have double periods of reading and books are everywhere," Hayes said.
At Whittier, students had been without a library for years until parents took matters into their own hands Sept. 15 and began occupying a neighboring field house slated for demolition, with the demand that it be turned into a library.
They have since filled half of the building with books donated by supporters including the Chicago Teachers Union. Last week, nearly 30 unopened boxes of books shipped by donors or sent through Amazon sat outside the parents' makeshift library.
Araceli Gonzalez, who helped organize the sit-in, said she began fighting for a library because her 10-year-old daughter is a voracious reader.
Halfway through last year, the girl had already exhausted the offerings of her small classroom library.
"Their reading grades are low," she said of the school, which has not met reading standards set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act since 2008. "What does that tell you? They need books."
Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES