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April 20, 2014

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Not as We Remember It: Public Education Is Being Gutted | Soapbox

Soapbox 9 2 13 288x300 Not as We Remember It: Public Education Is Being Gutted | SoapboxIt’s called “school reform” with a focus on “student achievement,” but I shudder to think where we have come as a nation that many public schools don’t have a library, and won’t ever get one unless someone can beg a grant from a foundation or corporation.

I saw this firsthand at the middle school/high school where I taught English in New York’s South Bronx. Touting itself as a model of school reform, this self-proclaimed “institute” was presented as a showcase of high standards and a passion for learning. Though set in the congressional district with the lowest per-capita income in the nation, the school was—the administration incessantly assured parents—the fast track to success.

The problem was, for its 350 students this school had little more than classrooms on the third floor of a former elementary school set between a hospital and a jail.

Dressed in uniforms resembling the old Catholic school outfit, the students looked the part of “scholars,” as the administration referred to them. But from what I could see, the kids really were just bit players in a tragedy entitled, “They Stole the American Public School Experience from Us and Called It Reform.”

A public school is supposed to have a music program. We only had a boom box and a bunch of drums and African gourds. A public school is supposed to have art. We had none. A public school is supposed to have a library. We didn’t.

We did, however, have a librarian. Ms. Page had been “thrust” upon our school when, after decades as the librarian in a large public high school, she was pushed out as it closed to make way for several new, smaller, reform-oriented “academies,” “institutes,” and “centers.” As a librarian without a library, she prepared a library-oriented bulletin board and was used as an administration utility player.

Sports? They were limited to baseball in a nearby park and basketball in the gym we shared with another school in the building. That is, until a teacher got a grant for an archery program that enabled a dozen ninth graders to spread out in the cafeteria after school to shoot at targets.

The power of grants became especially clear when the principal of the other small school in our building secured funding for a library. A hard-charging young fellow who knew his way around charities and foundations, he generated $500,000 a year from outside sources. He outdid himself with his school’s library.

Set on the second floor behind glass windows, it was a brand-new, high-tech oasis. It was gorgeous. Stack after stack of books, a line of brand-new computers. Carpet. Tables. Comfortable chairs.

Not that our students were permitted to use it while I taught there. I nonetheless led my eighth graders through for a tour, and they were dumbstruck. Even the most outrageous of them walked gently and touched nothing, knowing that this was a very special place.

Indeed it was. A school without its own library is now all too common. A crowd-sourced Google map, “A Nation Without School Libraries,” is dense with pins noting hundreds of schools—and school districts—without libraries or librarians.

Today, so much of what Americans have long taken for granted as the typical public-school experience is being eliminated—especially in schools opened under the banner of “school reform” and “student achievement.” Each year, as budgets shrink and test scores guide decisions, more and more school districts nationwide trim the “fat,” programs that enrich students’ lives culturally and help them grow and develop as people, but aren’t specifically academic. As a result, basics—even a school library—have become “extras” that are not taxpayer supported.

Once, students held bake sales and car washes to fund some activities. Now, principals, teachers, and parents have been forced to assume that role on a grand scale to pay for books, athletic equipment, after-school activities. Instead of cupcakes and soapsuds, they use today’s equivalent of the hat in hand—the grant application—to beg foundations and corporations to underwrite what, until recently, most Americans would have considered the birthright of students in our public schools.


John Owens is a former teacher and author of Confessions of a Bad Teacher, published by Sourcebooks.

This article was published in School Library Journal's September 2013 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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