December 14, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Colorado School Librarians Hopeful, Yet Wary, After Education Tax Bill’s Defeat

The defeat last month of Colorado’s Amendment 66, a statewide tax bill seeking to raise $950 million for education reform, has had little impact on the day-to-day lives of the state’s media specialists, since no funds in the initiative had been earmarked for school libraries, they tell School Library Journal.

Yet advocates for the profession also say the proposed legislation served to highlight the strong advocacy they have undertaken across the state in recent years and has sparked renewed efforts that they will be putting into action in 2014.

Capitol_Building_Denver_CO_USA_Colorado lacks a statewide mandate on certified school librarian staffing levels, which means each district—and, in most cases, school administrators themselves—get to decide how to spend their education dollars, explains Gene Hainer, a former school media specialist who now serves as Colorado’s State Librarian, an executive position within the Department of Education.

The bill’s defeat “leaves school districts and programs with pretty much the same funding status as they’ve had the last few years,” Hainer says. He also says that, on average, Colorado boasts a fairly strong ratio in the number of certified librarians per school, with many more aides and support staff among the ranks.

A holding pattern
Public school librarians serving in the state during 2010–2011, the latest school year for which official data has been collated—numbered 773 for about 1,650 K–12 schools, and although his staff at the Colorado State Library is still gathering the official numbers in order to update the data, Hainer says he expects the ratio hasn’t changed much in recent years.

However, Hainer acknowledges that budget reductions after the country’s 2008 economic downturn resulted in thinner ranks of media specialists across the state—and those levels have not risen.

Some school districts, such as Jefferson County (Jeffco), Colorado’s largest, have been fighting back against those odds, and have positioned its librarians as educators and instructional leaders.

“We’ve always been a district that believes in having full-time licensed teacher librarians,” Dr. Cynthia Stevenson, Jeffco’s Superintendent of Schools, tells SLJ. “[They] are accountable for this huge transformation in information literacy. I think Jeffco is unique in that we really have sustained that model. Many districts reduced it long ago—probably over a decade, but Jeffco has kept our teacher librarians, and we’ve changed their function. I call them our technology champions.”

In fact, Jeffco so believes in the profession and its critical impact on student achievement that it passed a levy override in 2012 in order to save many media specialist positions that were on the chopping block, Stevenson says. “We have full-time high school teacher librarians, and—except for one or two—our middle schools are full-time, and about half of our elementary schools now have half-time.”

Facing budget shortfalls
Yet Jeffco—which has 85,000 kids in 154 schools—remains cash-strapped, Stevenson says, with an operating budget that’s $63 million short of 2009 levels. “And technically, we should have $150 million more dollars in our budget, if it was keeping up with our school funding formula, and if we hadn’t already had huge reductions. We’ve all suffered from budget reductions at the state level.”

Colorado’s second-largest district faces similar challenges, confirms Dave Sanger, Director of Library Services for Denver Public Schools. Of his district’s 165 schools, 40 are charter schools that have little interaction with the rest of the district, but half the remaining schools are staffed by certified librarians and half by paraprofessionals, he says. “It’s a very site-based district—principal’s choice.”

Just to maintain the existing level of librarians has cost the district a lot of money, Sanger says. State support to Denver Public Schools is currently $40 million less than it was at pre-recession levels—even as its student rolls continue to grow. Fortunately, local voters have stepped in to pass bond issues, like the levy override in Jeffco, that have added at least some additional funds, he says.

Continued community support, like that being fostered in Jeffco and Denver, is critical to the future of the profession across the state, say Paula Busey, teacher librarian at ThunderRidge High School in Douglas County and president of the Colorado Association of School Libraries (CASL), and Megan McQuinn, teacher librarian at Denver’s Farrell B. Howell ECE-8 school and CASL president-elect.

“We are trying to keep our visibility high,” Busey tells SLJ, noting that CASL members have stepped up to present at conferences for technology teachers and school administrators and members are active in the state organization for the profession, the Colorado Association of Libraries. She adds, “Many of us have morphed our jobs to become technology and professional development leaders in addition to being research leaders in our schools, which helps make us less likely to be replaced.”

Sharing success stories
McQuinn agrees. “We are doing a lot with our profession to secure ourselves, and we [have] a more advocacy focus,” she tells SLJ. “We have a great website, Survive and Thrive. We’ve put on a very successful conference in September, and we have our own stream in the technology and education conference that is held here every summer. We have incorporated the Highly Effective School Library (HESL) program. And we have formed [professional development] cohorts to help librarians understand what the job in the 21st century should look like, so our positions become stronger and stronger and we become more indispensable in our buildings.”

But both Busey and McQuinn say they remain concerned about the influx of charter schools in Colorado, and recent changes to the makeup of several school boards during the recent election cycle, which could spell looming budget cuts early next spring.

“When a certified librarian resigns, will they be replaced with another? Too often, principals are reluctant to pay for that position,” Busey says. “Also, as the reform movement gains ground in Colorado, we are seeing that very few if any charter schools are choosing to hire a certified librarian. Douglas County, Denver, and Jefferson County all recently elected a majority of reform board of education candidates promising more charters, which does not bode well for librarians.”

That means CASL’s advocacy and message in 2014 will have to change, McQuinn says. As the organization gears up for new challenges in the coming year, it will be looking to school librarian success stories from within Colorado as well as those around the country—like in Washington State and Nebraska, for example—for inspiration and modeling in reaching out to more at-risk areas.

Grassroots groundswell
“Some parts of our district and some parts of our state have been very effective, like out on the western slope, and that has saved several positions there,” McQuinn says. “When you’re in the urban areas or in a lower socioeconomic area, it’s more difficult—but we’re trying to make it work for us.”

In the meantime, CASL is training its librarians “to understand the focus of technology in their everyday role,” McQuinn says. With an eye towards that goal, CASL plans to launch a new online academy next year—hopefully by March—which will be a digital literacy site for educators that provides training, strategies, and resources for taking their instruction to the next level.

Another big part of advocacy in 2014 will be continuing to broadcast HESL programs, which hopefully will send a message to district stakeholders  that may not be quite convinced of a teacher librarian’s value compared to a paraprofessional library aide—or no library staff at all. In 2012, 48 libraries were recognized by the program, with an additional 13 added in 2013.

Those honored by the HESL award appear before the Department of Education—usually with their principals in tow—at a press event recognizing them for their achievement, a strategy that has been having a “slow but sure ripple effect,” says Becky Russell, who helps leads the HESL program as the state library representative to the Colorado Department of Education.

“I think it’s our actions that speak for us,” Russell tells SLJ. “Sometimes we can highlight those who are doing things really well—that in and of itself is advocacy for our profession as a whole….What helps is that we’re pulling ourselves together more as a state and not as individuals, urban versus plains versus mountains—we are definitely pulling together to make our voice stronger.”

Further strengthening the profession, she says, will mean a threefold focus going forward: leadership, digital literacy, and transformative teaching.

Common Core and more
Russell also points to the Common Core as the perfect way to showcase the skills of librarians, a sentiment shared by Sanger and McQuinn. “I see it as an opportunity, I truly do,” Russell says, while McQuinn notes, “For us, this is what we’ve been doing all along. It’s a very natural fit.”

“It’s almost impossible to do the collaboration pieces of the Common Core, which are much research- and library-driven, without a teacher librarian,” Sanger adds. “So we’re trying to convince more principals that they’ll get more bang for their buck. It costs them twice as much to have a teacher as it does to have a paraprofessional in that room—but they get so much more.”

The Common Core is also popping up on the radar of public libraries, says Jim Duncan, executive director of the Colorado Library Consortium (CLiC). The best school librarians are embedded, a concept that is more and more taking hold in public library environments, he tells SLJ. “But in schools? They’ve been doing that kind of work for a long time.”

CLiC—which represents all types of libraries, including those in schools—is also looking at ways it can change the conversation about school libraries in 2014, especially before the district’s budgets are finalized, Duncan says. “One thing I have focused on is to embed a culture of storytelling. We do a great job as an industry at gathering data but we’re still novices to some extent in taking the successes of that data and turning it into stories, so we can connect on an emotional level.

“The data is never going to sing to those decision makers, but the human connections and the stories will. Through story, I think that there’s some chance that we could effect change.”

Karyn M. Peterson About Karyn M. Peterson

Karyn M. Peterson (kpeterson@mediasourceinc.com) is a former News Editor ofSLJ.

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