Earlier this year, a review committee designated by Vermont’s Board of Education to overhaul [PDF] its State Education Quality Standards quietly revised the documents to remove the words “library” and “library program,” despite recommendations from the Vermont School Library Association (VSLA). The VSLA and Vermont’s State Librarian have been working tirelessly ever since to get the language reinstated, VSLA President Denise Wentz tells School Library Journal.
VSLA’s advocacy efforts on the issue date back to August, explains Wentz, librarian at the PreK–2 Allen Brook School in Williston, VT. It was then that Judith Kaplan, school library media studies coordinator at the University of Vermont, discovered a final draft of the revised standards online. Kaplan was “surprised to see that the language about school libraries and staffing was red-lined,” she says.
Though VSLA experts had submitted library-specific language [PDF] in June to the committee—which began working on its rewrite of the standards in October 2012—none of that wording was incorporated into any of the monthly working drafts or the final draft that the committee sent to the state board (which is now called the Agency of Education), Kaplan says. One of the reasons, she notes, is that “no one on the committee was there to represent school library programs.”
No seat at the table
Vermont’s state education board did have a school library media consultant at one time—starting in the 1970s—which had helped design and implement the school quality standards in the late 1990s, Kaplan says. “The school library media consultant was at the table, and staffing levels and program language was included in the original document. Unfortunately, the position was lost in 2003.”
As a result, Vermont’s school librarians these days “are not always informed about issues that involve school library programs,” Wentz says.
“Philosophically, we, the school librarians, support changes…that focus on 21st-century skills, professional learning and leadership for educators, and standards-based curriculum,” Kaplan says. “We understand the vision and are poised to implement the revisions. But those on the committee had a different vision and school library programs were not part of it.”
Kaplans’s discovery of the disappointing final draft “led us into turbo mode,” says Heidi Huestis, librarian at the PreK–8 Charlotte (VT) Central School and VSLA representative of professional concerns. Though VSLA members were already set to discuss the standards at its summer retreat in August, their advocacy efforts were put on an accelerated timeline in order to mobilize before public hearings on the standards took place in October. “We really needed to see if we could influence the process,” she says.
Huestis adds, “Lucky for us, our State Librarian Marty Reid was willing and able to use her connection at the state level for us to help us move forward. I just see this as one more piece of proof that public and school libraries work best when they work together.”
A plan of action
The librarians then set about using every weapon in their arsenals to petition for school libraries. They created a committee to outline steps for immediate action—including elevator speeches and other sound bites for members to send out via email and for submission into the written public record [PDF]—and launched a letter-writing and postcard campaign to rally supporters in their communities.
By September, Reid had arranged a meeting with Vermont’s Secretary of Education, Armando Vilaseca, and Jill Remick, the project manager of the State Education Quality Standards, to whom the VSLA could state its case, Wentz says. They presented a resolution from the Vermont Consortium of Academic Librarians, signed by the library director of every college in Vermont, that says they “support the critical role of libraries and librarians in K–12 education in Vermont and strenuously oppose the proposal made by the Education Quality Standards Commission,” Wentz tells SLJ.
The VSLA also presented a letter from Eileen Kern, president of the Pennsylvania School Library Association, who shared that the removal of staffing requirements from Pennsylvania’s state school code resulted in the reduction of school library positions there. A letter from a librarian at a small rural school in Vermont—who feared her school’s program would be eliminated—was also presented.
In addition, Kaplan had prepared a side-by-side comparison chart of the previous education standards and the new draft standards to show “how specific language had been removed and replaced by some vague references to educational materials,” Huestis says.
Making the case
Says Wentz, “After the secretary and the project manager heard this, they agreed with us, and told us that the language would be added to the standards.” However, because the final draft had already been sent to the board, this could not be done right away, Wentz says. That meant petitioning the board directly, so Wentz and Kaplan set out for Montpelier to make their public presentation.
“It was really pretty intense and pretty crazy,” Kaplan says of their appearance. “We knew that, really, they didn’t understand what a school library program was. So we had to show them.”
Meanwhile, during perhaps the busiest time of year for school librarians, VSLA members sought to make appearances to testify at the three public hearings held across the state in October. Members were advised to proceed using what Huestis calls the “three p rule: We were prepared. We were polite. And most importantly, we were present.” Keeping the issue in front of the board—and in the public eye—is critical, Huestis says, noting, “I think this is a fight that we’re going to be fighting pretty consistently for our entire careers. And so it’s important to have that presence.”
Fortunately, stakeholders across the state—including students—stepped up to contribute to the testimony, Huestis says, “which was amazing to hear about.”
A partial victory, at last
This week, the librarians’ efforts paid off—at least in part. On Tuesday evening, November 19, the board met for the final time to discuss revisions. Although their revised final draft does not include the entirety of library-specific language [PDF] that the VSLA had requested regarding access to instructional resources, it does reinstate a key provision: that of the staffing requirements, Wentz tells SLJ. It reads:
The services of a certified library media specialist shall be made available to students and staff. Schools with over 300 students shall have at least one full-time library media specialist, and sufficient staff to implement a program that support literacy, information, and technology standards. Schools with fewer than 300 students shall employ a library media specialist in at least an approximate proportion of the number of students in the school to 300.
“I am thrilled,” Wentz says, noting that the next step in the process is the board members’ vote in December, after which they will send the standards to Vermont’s Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules for final enactment.
Until that time, the association plans to prepare a document on best practices in library programs, to be distributed by Vermont school librarians in their schools across the state.
“So that’s where we are, just waiting and hoping,” Wentz says. “Hopefully we won’t be fighting forever.”
But just in case it comes to that, the VLSA and its members are prepared for the long haul, Huestis says. “Vermonters are known for a few things—skiing, maple syrup, our Green Mountains. But really the thing that I like to think we are good at is our tenacity,” she says. “I think that that’s what we’ve capitalized on so far, and I really believe that’s what will keep us going.”