Too few top-notch libraries

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Excitement about books is the norm at Norwood Park Elementary on the far northwest side. Here, students often bring a tower of books to librarian Nancy Volkman, who reaches over to feel the child’s muscles and asks if the student can carry them before checking the books out. Many schools tie the number of books students can check out to their grade level, but Volkman rarely imposes such a ceiling.

During her 11 years on the job, Volkman has garnered tens of thousands of dollars in matching grants from the CPS Department of Libraries and Information Services to update the collection, now at more than 12,000 books and videos. The well-stocked library takes up two rooms, with large windows, handsome furnishings and five computers with Internet access.

Along with maintaining the collection, Volkman engages in tasks that experts say help both teachers and students, such as working with teachers to develop curriculum-enriching activities—for instance, classroom exercises that teach research skills to 1st-graders.

In an ideal school system, all CPS school libraries would be like Norwood Park’s. In reality, many schools have meager collections or no library at all.

One such school is Graham Elementary in Canaryville, where two libraries were closed four years ago when the former principal couldn’t find a librarian. Current Principal John Katzberger hopes to find a suitable candidate at an upcoming CPS job fair, but he and other principals face a district-wide librarian shortage. Meanwhile, the libraries have been converted into special education classrooms.

At sister schools Fleming and Grimes in Clearing, lack of space forced the schools to turn one library into a classroom and the second into a computer lab.

Librarian Deborah Cottonaro, who stores books on shelves in the lab and in the assistant principal’s office, spends her days wheeling a selection of books from classroom to classroom on a mobile cart.

“I make due with what we’ve got,” says Cottonaro with resignation.

Libraries not a given

CPS’ library department says it does not have current records on the conditions of school libraries.

But a 2002 internal study on the size and age of library collections, found that 71 percent, or 410 of 576 schools, had book collections rated only ‘fair’ or ‘poor,’ or no library at all. Another 20 percent (116 schools) had collections rated “good.” Only 9 percent (50 schools) had “exemplary” or “excellent” book collections.

Librarian Patti Foerster of Vaughn Occupational High School in Portage Park conducted her own survey of 46 elementary schools that were large enough to qualify for a full-time librarian. She found that only two of the 46 had a collection at or above the national average of 18 books per student (as calculated by the National Center for Education Statistics). Three had no library at all.

“Libraries are one of the most poorly institutionalized things in the public school system,” says Keith Curry Lance, a researcher at Colorado State University who has conducted studies on school libraries and is scheduled to release an Illinois-based study this month. “If you question the need for a sports program, a counselor or a cafeteria, people think you’re nuts. [But] in too many schools, libraries are not a given.”

Schools with a certified full-time librarian post reading scores that are 10 to 20 percent higher than other schools, Lance reports. Reading scores also rise as the number of books, periodical subscriptions, and electronic reference titles per student increase.

Those findings hold true even after controlling for other factors, such as family income, parents’ education and per-pupil spending. “Libraries exercise a demonstrable impact on test scores that can’t be explained away by other things,” says Lance.

The ancillary activities good librarians provide are crucial, he points out. “The hours spent planning cooperatively with teachers, teaching cooperatively, providing in-service training to your teachers—these things correlate with test scores.”

Grants fill funding void

After the 2002 internal study, CPS began providing schools with “poor” and “fair” libraries with money and new books, spending more than $5 million.

The department also began giving matching grants to schools that spent at least $5,000 in discretionary funds on books and other resources.

This year, the department has given out almost $1 million; so far, 140 schools have qualified for the current round of grants. The matching grants help schools that can only spend a few thousand dollars, CPS contends. But schools without a central library are not eligible to apply, even to augment classroom libraries or provide books for a mobile cart.

Paul Whitsitt, director of the library department, says grants act as an incentive for schools to dedicate their own funds to libraries. But he advocates reinstituting a line in the district’s budget solely for library spending; the line was scrapped when the department was dismantled for five years in 1991.

“It’s still an obligation of the principal to fund the library. But without the line, the level of funding [schools provide] ranges across the board,” Whitsitt says.

Sandra James, principal of Mark Twain Elementary in Garfield Ridge, has received matching grants from CPS over the past several years and is building the school’s collection in anticipation of a larger library in a new wing. But finding enough resources is a challenge.

“There are always other needs,” says James. “Sometimes it’s just the basics, like text books, that we have to spend money on.”

In a study funded by the Institute for Library and Information Literacy Education at Kent State University, Foerster interviewed principals and teachers in Chicago. Principals reported that “general lack of funding” was the top factor keeping them from creating the “best possible library” for their schools.

But when asked to choose up to six features that “would have the most positive impact” on their school’s situation—including computers in the library, an enhanced collection, a professional librarian, a full-time aide, flexible scheduling, and collaboration of librarians with teachers—more principals checked “collaboration with teachers” than any other item. Computers and an enhanced collection came in second and third.

Foerster says teachers reported wanting more time to work with colleagues. But only three mentioned librarians as potential partners. “That raises our hackles because our job is to work with the teachers,” says Foerster.

Limited conceptions changing

One expert points out how principals make a difference.

“Much of the responsibility for library programs seems to rest on the shoulders of the principals,” says Gail Bush, director of the School Library Media program at Dominican University in River Forest. “When principals understand how qualified librarians support the curriculum and impact student achievement, their support of the library increases dramatically.”

Lance notes that principals and other educators still have a limited conception of what school libraries should look like. “You remember what there was in the mid-’70’s,” he says.

But, says Whitsitt, “more and more high-energy, creative people” are entering the profession. And at its best, the librarian’s job is the best in the school, he adds. “You have control over your work day, you’re an administrator and a teacher, and you have the best physical space.”

Catalyst intern Alejandra Cerna Rios contributed to this report.

Leslie Whitaker is a Chicago-area writer. Send e-mail to editor@catalyst-chicago.org.