Passionate school library advocacy takes many forms, though all too often these efforts don’t cross over to district and state leadership as much as they could and should. This can change once stakeholders at all levels—media specialists, technology coordinators, principals, district administrators, superintendents, higher education professionals, national association representatives, and industry veterans—start working together to improve student outcomes.
That’s the goal of Project Connect, a national initiative that is bringing these thought leaders to the same table to support the needs of 21st century schools.
Current team members of Project Connect represent leadership in all facets of librarianship and education: Dr. Mark Edwards, Superintendent of the Year (Mooresville, NC, Graded School District); Dr. Steve Joel, superintendent of Lincoln (NE) Public Schools; Mark Ray, director of instructional technology and library services of Vancouver (WA) Public Schools, 2011 Washington Teacher of the Year, and SLJ “Pivot Points” columnist; Dana Bost, chief high schools officer of the Houston (TX) Independent School District; Dr. Donna Wright, assistant superintendent of the Williamson (TN) County Schools; Karen Cator, the president and CEO of Digital Promise; Dr. Donna Shannon, associate professor at the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina; Dr. Susan Ballard, past president of the American Association of School Librarians; Gail Dickinson, current AASL president; and Dr. Barbara Stripling, president of the American Library Association.
Forming a leadership team
The project is the brainchild of Todd Litzsinger, president of Follett’s Content Solutions and Services, who is seeking to apply his 20-plus years of experience in the industry to network leaders across the spectrum of the education, he says. “In the community of Project Connect, what we’ve found is the unique opportunity to connect technology and people in the transition from print and digital, and to get people together who haven’t normally been connected,” he tells School Library Journal.
“Follett has tremendous reach,” notes Litzsinger. “We’re deeply embedded with all parts of the school and at the administrator level. We have tremendous knowledge that we can share across the market.“
However, “the most important thing for us is not to highlight Follett, but to highlight some of the industry leaders who are making a difference,” Litzsinger says. “We’re able to pull together folks and engage them and get information shared between different parts of the country, whether that’s from a library standpoint or a classroom standpoint or an administrator standpoint.”
Key team members first met about a year ago for a brainstorming session at Follett’s home office in McHenry, IL, where they discussed “our vision for libraries and the role of school librarians and school libraries in connection with the digital transformation and the digital shift,” Mark Ray tells SLJ. “It was really a philosophical discussion. What was most amazing, to me, is that we had superintendents, we had higher education, we had the royalty of AASL—and there was really no disagreement. There was a lot of common ground out of the gate as far as a very progressive view of how school librarians and how teacher librarians connect with 21st century schools, and that was great.”
Next steps in advocacy
Members next met in the spring in Tucson, AZ, for a conversation at the Education Research and Development Institute (ERDI)’s conference, followed by a site visit to the Mooresville (NC) schools this fall, Ray says. And though Edwards mentioned the project in his remarks at ALA’s Annual conference this past June, the project’s official public launch was this past weekend at the 16th National Conference of the AASL, according to Britten Follett, publicity director for the company.
Going forward, the project will likely publish white papers on its site as well as videos illustrating best practices and possibly a documentary, Follett says. “Our end goal is to provide best practice models, advocacy from the superintendent level, and to force the conversation,” she tells SLJ. “This isn’t going to be solved in a year, but we think [this project] has legs.”
In 2014, team members will represent the project in Los Angeles on March 15–17 at the 69th annual conference of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) and the annual conference of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), set for June 28 through July 1 in Atlanta. Members have also expressed some interest in presenting to the National School Boards Association (NSBA) in 2014, but a schedule has not been set, Follett says.
Notes Dr. Mark Edwards, “I really do think that there’s potential for this project to grow and have an impact, and as we’re rolling out with panels, I think it has the potential to create another level of dialog and value.” He tells SLJ, “Ultimately, students will be the winners and then some.”
The success of the project is dependent upon the strong working relationships that team members are able to develop with one another. Fortunately, this has been the case since the beginning, and several team members even expressed to SLJ their enthusiasm for the opportunities to share knowledge and broaden their perspectives by working alongside other education leaders that they admire.
Learning from each other
For example, Gail Dickinson is very excited by Edwards’s involvement, she says. “I was just recently on a visit to the Mooresville school district and visited those schools and talked with those librarians. The two words that I would use to describe his school district are empowered and engaged, at all levels. It was just a remarkable experience, the level of learning. It truly was digital learning, integrated in everything they did. I was very impressed. What I really enjoy about this project is getting that superintendent perspective, which is really fascinating. [Edwards is] a great example of what can happen when superintendents really understand and value the importance of school libraries.”
For Ray, working alongside both Edwards and Karen Cator has been especially inspiring, he says. He tells SLJ that, “There’s been a lot of advocacy by librarians that does not cross that rubicon [to] administrators, so to have the national Superintendent of the Year waxing eloquently about how important libraries are to the success of their very successful program in Mooresville—and to have Karen Cator from Digital Promise lend her interest and support behind an initiative that really is looking at the role of how libraries support 21st century schools—is really powerful.”
This “executive level conversation” that Project Connect has begun, Ray says, is unprecedented.
Adds Edwards, the project “is a reciprocal value all the way around. We have great professional learning, a dynamic learning community. We’re learning from the association leadership and looking at things through a different lens. It has really gelled, having superintendents and library association leadership together.” And after some initial awkwardness at that first meeting, when team members were still getting their bearings, “we started to really getting into a dialog of how do we really work together to transform the work of these specialist librarians to really leverage that resource and link it to the digital evolution,” he tells SLJ. “So I think that’s a win-win.”
From local to national
Project Connect’s leadership team is hoping to ride the wave of that optimism into a place of far greater visibility in 2014, which kicked off with the presentation at AASL on Saturday morning. “We’ve got this sense now that we’ve got some momentum, that this is exciting and important work and it can have an impact,” Edwards tells SLJ. “I think, for everyone involved, it feels like we’ve got a growing synergy, and we need to take full advantage of and build on that. And I think we can do it.”
It was a time to express to them, “’Hey, we get this,’” Ray tells SLJ. “’There are some people that want to support you and have a vision for where this is going to go.‘ The other thing that needs to happen is we need to get in front of national and regional school leadership to articulate that.”
After comments from Litzsinger and Britten Follett and a brief best practices video, the panelists introduced themselves and got down to basics, laying out their plan to address student outcomes, equity issues, and the digital transformation of our schools in the months to come.
According to Steve Joel, “If we don’t bring along our librarians and media specialists with this digital transformation, then were leaving behind one of the most important aspects of educational delivery,”—a sentiment that was met with much applause from the AASL members in the audience, as did Edwards’s proclamation: “I love librarians! I love them so much, I married one.”
Joel also noted that the focus of Project Connect’s efforts will be “about unleashing that human capital, having [media specialists] at the forefront of school change,” and stressed that “the change that we’re making is substantial and it’s within a positive framework.”
Added Karen Cator, “We don’t want to let go of what [librarians] used to be but we also have this new awesome tool chest…to get at what they’ve always been about: inspiring reading, inspiring questioning, and inspiring research.” But we “absolutely have to move that needle,” Edwards told the crowd, explaining that education can no longer be delivered in silos.
Bringing it home
Joel and Edwards then swapped stories about the ways that the media specialists in their districts were able to catch their attention, and shared practical tips for attendees to take back to their own schools. “You have to stand your ground. If we don’t stand up individually and collectively for what we know is right and believe in than we can get pushed over,” Edwards said.
Added Ray, “Go to your principals and ask to be part of that leadership team….There should be a librarian at every table. Dream big, and think beyond just your own schools.”
Joel’s sharing of a survey that showed a great disconnect between how many librarians view themselves as building leaders, instructional leaders, and leaders of professional development and how few principals believe that to be the case was met with gasps from the crowd. So once the floor opened up to audience questions, the media specialists in attendance were anxious to learn more about Project Connect’s future plans, and to share their own stories.
First off, said Ray, “Stand down the pitchforks—full frontal advocacy is effective sometimes and necessary, but more often than not it is off-putting.” He advised librarians to submit short executive summaries to their districts requesting greater involvement, and prepare to show a heavy dose of patience and the willingness to offer solutions before asking for something in return.
In the meantime, news that panelists would next be headed to ASCD and ISTE was met with cheers and applause from the audience, which only continued with Cator’s assurance that the project placed a high priority on creating solid sound bytes and videos that can be shared, linked to, and Tweeted. “We need a national campaign,” she said. “Our commitment is that we will work with you.”