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What Happens to Literacy Rates as Librarians Disappear?

Today’s school libraries rely as much on e-readers, Apple TV and digital research as on books, magazines and encyclopedias -- and they're often staffed by "media specialists" rather than librarians. But at what cost?

(TNS) — Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has been shedding school librarians faster than any district in North Carolina over the past five years, and there’s a debate going on about whether that makes a difference for students.

This year, 31 of the district’s 168 schools have libraries led by staffers other than media specialists, who have master’s degrees and specialized training to run libraries.

Ruby Jones, a school board member and retired teacher, calls that “mind-boggling” in a district that names literacy as its top priority. She says it’s crucial to bring back media specialists in high-poverty schools where few students can read at grade level.

“Many homes of high poverty do not have one piece of literature in their homes,” Jones said. “These same students do not have transportation to a public library. They must experience the richness of a school media center to know the value.”

Superintendent Ann Clark says that media specialists have “tremendous value” and that school libraries remain a vital part of each school. But as literacy – digital and print – permeates the entire school day, she says she’s willing to give principals flexibility to decide what combination of staffing and credentials works best for their schools. In some cases, that means libraries are run by assistants, technology teachers or testing specialists.

Today’s school libraries – now known as media centers – rely as much on e-readers, Apple TV and digital research as on books, magazines and encyclopedias. The people who run them are expected to provide lessons and activities for a steady stream of students trooping through for weekly visits. They can help reluctant readers discover books that will spark their imaginations, show students how to log on to laptops and use educational software, and teach kids the difference between quality research and Google-and-paste laziness.

Best fit for role

Clark and the principals who have traded out their media specialists don’t dispute the importance of that role. But they say sometimes the best person to fill it doesn’t hold that title.

At Nathaniel Alexander Elementary, Principal Lauren Fowler uses the state allotment for a media specialist – a job that’s paid on the teacher scale – to add a reading teacher who visits classrooms to work with struggling readers. LaVette Black, a teacher assistant, runs the library and conducts the same activities and lessons that the media specialist used to do, Fowler says.

“I think we get more,” Fowler said. “Our children are not losing any value or knowledge of reading by running the media center the way we do.”

Clark notes that even though the number of certified librarians has dropped – a trend that emerged in CMS the year before she became superintendent – schools are giving students additional access to books in classrooms and public libraries, which now take CMS student IDs as a library card.

“The access to books has increased,” Clark said, “not decreased.”

  • 31 of 168 CMS schools have no librarian
  • 21 are high-poverty schools
  • 19 have grade-level reading rates below 50 percent
Budget cuts during the recent recession fueled a decline in school media specialists in North Carolina and across the country.

“From coast to coast, elementary and high school libraries are being neglected, defunded, repurposed, abandoned and closed,” Debra Kachel, a professor in Mansfield University of Pennsylvania’s school library program, wrote in a July article lamenting “disappearing school libraries.” Kachel writes that her research indicates students in several states score better on reading and writing when their schools have a library staffed by a certified librarian.

North Carolina public schools dropped from 2,303 media specialists in 2010-11 to 2,168 last school year, a 6 percent decrease, numbers provided by the Department of Public Instruction show. Last year, North Carolina had 271 more schools than media specialists.

  • 2,303 School librarians in N.C. public schools in 2011
  • 2,168 School librarians in N.C. public schools in 2015
  • 6% Decrease in jobs
The state’s two largest districts show very different trends. During those five years, Wake County logged a slight increase, from 196 to 200 media specialists. Last year, Wake had 171 schools, according to the state report.

During that same time, CMS dropped from 154 to 128 media specialists, a 17.5 percent change. Last year, CMS had 164 schools.

Cumberland County Schools was the only other North Carolina district to drop by more than 10 media specialists, going from 106 in 2010-11 to 91 in 2014-15. With 86 schools, that district still had more librarians than schools, according to the state list.

This year, 30 CMS elementary and middle schools, as well as one special education school, have no media specialist.

  • 154 School librarians in CMS in 2011
  • 128 School librarians in CMS in 2015
  • 17.5% Decrease in jobs

Finding the right balance

It’s unclear why CMS stands out from the crowd. For years, superintendents have tried to balance mandates that ensure consistency with flexibility for principals to run their schools.

The state numbers show the total number of CMS media specialists dropped only slightly from 2010 to 2013, at a time when the district was closing schools to save money. The biggest drop came between 2013-14 and 2014-15, when Heath Morrison was superintendent. Clark took over after Morrison resigned last fall.

Jones, who was appointed to the school board in February 2015, asked for a list of schools without media specialists this fall, after hearing from two volunteers who said they were seeing library programs neglected after schools had eliminated their media specialists.

“It has been my experience over the years that there is a lack of understanding exactly what qualifications a media specialist with a master’s in library science can actually bring to the table,” Donna Nielson, who has volunteered in school libraries for more than 20 years, said in an email.

Nielson told Jones that a previous principal at Newell Elementary, where she volunteers now, had turned the school library into a testing center after the school’s media specialist resigned. Students could still use the library, she said, but there was no one with the interest or skills to engage them.

The current principal has assigned a teacher assistant who does good work, Nielson told the Observer. But the assistant lacks the expertise and, as an hourly employee, the time that a salaried media specialist would bring, Nielson said. It’s “just insane” to give up certified librarians when so many children need help reading, she said.

Jones agreed, and has twice spoken at board meetings seeking a review of decisions to eliminate librarians, especially at high-poverty, low-scoring schools.

“Do we want to promote lifelong reading of good literature and research skills, or is our goal simply to get children to read to pass the (state exams)?” Jones asked in September. “We want our students to do both. The media specialist has a crucial role.”

The CMS list shows that schools without librarians range from Bruns Academy, a high-poverty pre-K-8 school where 22 percent of students tested at grade level on reading last year, to Grand Oak Elementary, a low-poverty school where 84 percent tested at grade level.

Laraine Durham is PTA president at Grand Oak in Huntersville, a school where “parents are super, super involved.” She was alarmed when a reporter asked about schools eliminating certified media specialists, noting that Jennifer Brinn, who runs the library, brings warmth, enthusiasm and a love of books.

“I’ve seen her work with the kids,” Durham said. “I would hate to see that position go away.”

What she didn’t realize is that Brinn, who has run the library since Grand Oak opened in 2013, isn’t a media specialist. She’s a technology teacher who was, in the eyes of Principal Ray Giovanelli, the best fit for the job. She teaches a steady stream of K-5 classes that cycle through for 45-minute blocks.

“I was looking for a person that I thought could infuse energy into the position,” Giovanelli said.

At Nathaniel Alexander, Fowler says that Black, the teacher assistant running the library, is studying for a degree in library science and attends district training for media specialists. In addition to Black’s work with the students, Fowler says, all teachers have classroom libraries with books geared toward their students’ reading levels. And the “reading interventionist” who took the place of a media specialist helps them craft personal plans for the students who struggle most.

While Nathaniel Alexander’s reading scores remain low – fewer than half the students hit the grade-level mark last year, and just under one-third were rated on the college-ready track – the school had the second-highest growth among CMS elementary schools, Fowler said.

A school that doesn’t have a certified media specialist is not a 21st-century school.

Abby Moore, education librarian and instructor at UNCC College of Education

Debate over credentials

Ultimately, the debate is about whether a media specialist’s credentials are needed to give students their best shot at becoming the engaged, sophisticated readers who can succeed in college and a high-tech workforce.

Joanna Gerakios, a Pitt County school librarian who heads the N.C. School Library Media Association, says yes. School media specialists are trained not only in such traditional tasks as buying material and helping students find books that match their ability and interest, she says, but also in newer issues such as Internet safety and the challenges of doing online research.

Abby Moore, who teaches aspiring school librarians at the UNC Charlotte College of Education, agrees. Libraries staffed with people who lack that training fall short, she said.

Jones said Friday that she’s not convinced that the substitutions are working. She said she’s going to ask Clark for details on how each of the 31 schools has handled the trade-offs.

It is our belief that we have to trust our principals to make the right decision for their schools.

CMS Superintendent Ann Clark, who calls literacy the “North Star” goal of her administration, says she trusts her principals to strike the right balance for their schools.

Schools with persistently low performance – including Bruns and a handful of others that have no media specialist – are part of the CMS Beacon Initiative, which includes a review of what needs to change at each school. If library staffing is deemed a problem for student learning, the district could insist on hiring a media specialist.

Denise Watts, who supervises nine high-poverty schools in the West Charlotte High zone as CMS’ Project LIFT superintendent, agrees that principals need flexibility. Four LIFT schools have exchanged their media specialists for other jobs.

“I just think it’s being perceived the wrong way,” Watts said. “The media specialist is not the only thing and person that drives reading in a school.”

©2015 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.