Photo by thejester100 on Flickr.

After parent outcry about librarians in schools last year, a DCPS task force recommended keeping existing full-time librarians and working toward having one in every school in 3 years. Unfortunately, the 2014 budget allocations do not put DCPS on track to meet this commitment.

Last year, DCPS moved librarians out of the category of “required staff” and into “flexible staff.” Required staff are those for programs required at every school, while flexible staff run programs that the principal and Local School Advisory Team (LSAT) can adjust based on the school’s programmatic needs. In short, librarians became optional for many schools.

Many families, unhappy with this change, organized a campaign on behalf of librarians in their schools. They testified at hearings, created a petition, protested at street festivals, and supported a bill by Councilmember Jack Evans to require a librarian, math, and art teacher at every school.

After 6 months, DCPS responded by assembling a task force study the librarian issue. The task force recommended keeping all full-time librarians in current positions and working towards having a full-time librarian staffed at each school in 3 years’ time.

Chancellor Kaya Henderson seemed amenable to these recommendations. When she proposed closing and consolidating 12 schools, she said that DCPS would better be able to ensure full-time librarians with fewer, solidly-enrolled schools instead of more under-enrolled ones.

Budget allocations do not sufficiently support librarians

The initial budget allocations for school year 2014 came out last week, and had a disappointing surprise on the librarian front.

Schools that previously qualified for a full-time librarian (based on minimum enrollment requirements), now find themselves with a part-time librarian instead. They will have to come up with flexible funds to pay for the rest or lose their full-time librarian.

As an added hurdle, principals have lost some autonomy to petition to move funds from required positions to those that better align with their schools’ programming.

How did this happen? It appears that the threshold requirements for a full-time librarian have increased. There is not an explicit threshold in the budget guidelines, but based on analyzing the enrollment of Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan and Maury Elementary, it looks like the thresholds moved up from about 250 to 400 students.

This is unsettling, as it makes it difficult for many schools to reach these enrollment levels in the near future. And what about schools like Ross Elementary, which is extremely popular in the lotteries, but at 160 kids is already exceeding its documented capacity of 150?

Libraries Task Force member Suzanne Wells also said the task force recommended that DCPS provide librares with a per student allocation to purchase books and other materials, but the FY14 budget does not include one. According to Wells, most other well-functioning school systems provide such an allocation. Its absence puts principals in the tough position of making difficult decisions on items that truly should be baseline resources for each school.

Librarians are good for schools and kids

Having full-time librarians strengthens schools. Last summer, I compared school standardized test (DC CAS) results and calculated that schools with full-time librarians had an average 10% higher DC CAS scores than schools without librarians. While not a scientific process, given the struggle for tiny improvement in test performance, the results of this analysis seem worth looking into.

Beyond the research the Task Force cited in support of librarians and their correlation to student performance, the reasons are just plain sensible. In schools without the resources for computer labs, the library may be students’ only access to computers. Librarians are key to teaching children about how to pursue a topic of interest deeply.

The ability to research a subject they love may be what brings children to school, when they may be having a tough time connecting with reading or math (and who wouldn’t, thanks to the testing craze). How to research, not just Google is a skill children need to learn. In fact, given that DC’s biggest industry is one of ideas and information, we need to teaching children how to access information. As a friend recently said, “we need to teach children to become librarians themselves.”

Finally, as class sizes grow, librarians become those rare opportunities for students to get one-on-one time with educators. This becomes important to feeling connected with the adults in a school. My children often visit their small, cozy library when they need a little quiet time, as well as when they are doing research. Their librarian helps them to find both those necessary facts, and that quiet space.

I’m grateful that my children’s principal values this and has made a librarian a priority, but it shouldn’t have to be a tough choice. It should just be.