As more than 4,000 school library professionals from around the country flock to Hartford, CT, this weekend for the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) National Conference, Connecticut’s own media specialists are at a crossroads. They face one of the highest achievement—and budget—gaps in the United States between their state’s poor and wealthy school districts. However, the potential for successful advocacy efforts is very high, according to Mary Ellen Minichiello, president of the Connecticut Association of School Librarians (CASL), and Gail Dickinson, president of AASL.
Several recent developments in Connecticut—including the State Department of Education‘s efforts to revamp its teacher evaluation process and the continued rollout of the Common Core State Standards—are creating an unprecedentedly receptive environment in which to educate stakeholders about the role of library media specialists in the schools, Minichiello tells School Library Journal.
“The Common Core is an important part of all of our jobs right now,” adds David Bilmes, CASL past president and library media specialist at Schaghticoke Middle School in New Milford, CT. “There’s no one better in our schools to promote reading and the love of reading and the love of literature. And study after study shows that the more kids read, the better they do academically.”
“I’m excited because I think that the standards are going to give us so many more opportunities to define and describe and substantiate who we are, because they need us.” says Minichiello, who is a library media specialist at Calf Pen Meadow Elementary School in Milford, CT. “If they’re truly going to do the Common Core throughout all curricula, they need their library media specialists there in an academic role, not circulating books. I think our role has changed a lot and that’s something else that the people at the top don’t necessarily understand.”
New standards, new stakes
Minichiello has had a bird’s-eye view of the inner workings of the state’s education department for nearly two years, as a member of an advisory committee to Connecticut’s Performance Evaluation Advisory Council (PEAC), which is comprised of teachers and administrators from around the state.
Together with her colleagues on the committee—guidance counselors, psychologists, and other non-classroom school specialists—Minichiello has been helping to create new framework tools that are more closely aligned to the Common Core than the previous Charlotte Danielson model.
Through those experiences, Minichiello has learned that many superintendents and other education stakeholders were quite uninformed about the role of library media specialists. In the hope of changing all that, Minichiello has helped the state create a rubric [PDF] in the form of a “white paper,” which debuted in September on the state’s website for superintendents and principals.
Minichiello used extensive resources from AASL’s database as well as lesson plans that she gathered from school librarian colleagues throughout the state to create the rubric, she notes.
Perhaps surprisingly, Minichiello says was actually more inspired than distressed to learn how little superintendents know about school librarianship, and that will inform CASL’s advocacy plans for 2014.
“What it’s made me understand is that the challenge is not that people out there don’t care or they’re indifferent or they just want to eliminate library media specialists, [it’s that] they do not know,” she says. “But I really believe that if more superintendents understood what a good library media specialist can do they would be advocating for them.”
And now that the rubric has been publicized, it’s only the beginning, Minichiello tells SLJ. CASL has conducted several workshops, and has many more planned in 2014, to help coach its school librarians into stronger relationships with their principals, superintendents, and other stakeholders.
CASL is also working with the Connecticut Library Assocation on helping public librarians get up to speed on the Common Core in order to better serve their children and teen patrons—thereby making its school librarians even more visible across the state. “And hopefully through AASL’s conference, we’re going to get some good inspirational ideas for going forward,” she says.
Eyes on inequity
Coming into the sharpest focus this weekend, though, will likely be concerns about equity, Minichiello and Dickinson say. Connecticut is currently involved with so many exciting improvements in education, but unfortunately, budget constraints have blocked progress in so many districts, notes Minichiello.
“It’s sort of ironic that we’re having our national conference for school librarians in a city where the public school district is struggling, and it’s not just because of a lack of school librarians or a lack of support for the programs,” Bilmes says. “In Connecticut we have the highest achievement gap in the country, between the poor urban districts and some of the wealthier suburban districts.”
Bilmes adds, “We have some of the best schools in the country, and we have some librarians whose programs have been recognized as a national program of the year. And yet, we have some of the worst school districts in the country, too.”
Poverty is the prevailing issue nationwide, Bilmes says. “You could have the best schools in the world but if the kids come in there hungry and with troubled home lives, they can’t achieve academically.” Closer to home, district segregation also plays a big role, he tells SLJ.
In Connecticut, says Bilmes, “Our inner-city schools are almost all Hispanic or African American and many of the districts in the suburbs outside those cities have one or two percent minority students in them. [We need to] address that racial disparity in Hartford and the surrounding areas.”
To start the conversation about these issues, Dickinson published an editorial last week in the Hartford Courant, which was endorsed by Minichiello and timed to precede this weekend’s conference.
Dickinson was inspired to write the editorial because “We are very concerned about Hartford and the lack of school librarians,” she tells SLJ. “The students who are most in need of help are the students who most likely will not have a school librarian in the city of Hartford, and that should be seen as not only a problem and a crisis but also really a cause for outrage.”
Though nearly all the high schools in Connecticut do have certified librarians—thanks to NEASC’s accreditation requirement (New England Association of Schools and Colleges)—there is a great disparity when it comes to the elementary and middle school level, Bilmes says, especially since there is no state mandate for minimum library staffing levels. Some schools share a library media specialist with one or more other schools, while some students have access to no library media specialists at all. And there have been numerous layoffs in recent years—especially at the elementary school level—in many of Connecticut’s poorer school districts, Bilmes and Minichiello say.
Rallying the troops
“There are so many authors and notable figures who talk about how the library really saved them, that they found a place there,” Dickinson says. “When that school is shuttered and dark, what chance does a child have who just wants to escape what they see around them and lose themselves in a book? Or find a way to explore information? We focus, sometimes I think overly much, on saving school libraries—what we’re really doing is saving children.”
That’s why advocacy is so important, and why one of the sessions that Dickinson is most looking forward to this weekend is Saturday’s presentation by Project Connect, a Follett-sponsored initiative that brings together the leaders of nationally-recognized school districts with the heads of strong library programs. The panel will feature Dr. Mark Edwards of the Mooresville (NC) Graded School District, National Superintendent of the Year, “talking to school librarians about the kinds of stories that they should be talking to their superintendents, showcasing what they do to support student learning.”
“Sometimes that can be missing, that link between the school librarians and administrators,” Dickinson says. “There needs to be more of an overt message on how school librarians work with students and teachers in learning. And I think that message is going to be there loud and clear. We’re seeing advocacy on a lot of levels, from that grassroots effort all the way up to national speakers.”
Adds Minichiello, “We do need to market ourselves! I don’t think library media specialists have tooted their own horn in the past, and now understood that they have to. You need to market your library, and you need to become a leader in your school as well as in your state. And never say no.”