After years of austerity cuts [PDF] to its state education budget, Georgia is pursuing a major revamp of its public schools system that could allow local communities greater control over school budgets in exchange for meeting higher standards.
The changes, which should be complete by June 2015, might mean some schools (like charters) will opt out of maintaining their library programs, as has been in the case in states where media specialists have been fighting for the survival of the profession as charter schools have flourished. However, Georgia’s teacher librarians are hopeful, they tell School Library Journal, noting that the restructuring actually presents an ideal opportunity to get their feet on the ground, strengthen the skills of their colleagues, and build grassroots support for their changing role in student learning.
“Our media is changing,” says Beth Miller, library media specialist at Crabapple Middle School in Roswell, GA, and president-elect of the Georgia Library Media Association (GLMA). “We are also now moving into working more and more with Bring Your Own Device [programs], whether they are tablets, smartphones, or even personal laptops that are coming into schools. So we need to be able to bridge that gap. Part of it is being there as support and training for students. It also means being there to help teachers so that they can then use the devices within their lesson plans.”
Adds Miller, “When it comes to coaching and training and collaborating, that’s where the media specialist really comes in. And as we [work] more and more on the support level, we really need as media specialists to coordinate and embrace that role.”
Georgia’s education overhaul
In a process begun about three years ago, the Georgia Department of Education (DOE) has tasked each of the state’s 159 districts to choose an education model: become a charter school system, become an “IE Squared” system through a contract with the DOE called Investing in Educational Excellence, or maintain the status quo. The first two models offer schools more flexibility in how they spend their funds to reach their educational goals. They can seek waivers of state requirements as long as they make specific improvements, such as bettering student achievement, class size, expenditure control, certification, and salary schedules, Miller notes.
This shifting educational environment, Miller adds, means the time is now for Georgia’s media specialists—certified teachers in their own right—to focus on expanding their services to other teachers, marketing their media services, instruction, and programs to school and district stakeholders, and encouraging their colleagues to do the same.
Sue Levine, media specialist at Hawthorne Elementary School in Atlanta and active GLMA member, agrees. “We have to take time to write down all that we do, why we’re valuable, what events we’re hosting, who we’re connecting with, and how that’s impacting the students. I think the best form of self-advocacy is visibility,” she tells SLJ. “These things that are happening in the state are going to happen, but we have to keep plugging away. We’re in play right now. We can save ourselves.”
Adds Levine, “Everyone is trying to figure out what to do. We could go over the cliff if we’re not careful, so I think this is the best time to be proactive, and stand up and say ‘yes we have value.’”
As part of these outreach efforts, Miller secured a coveted appearance on this month’s TL News Night Web program so Georgia’s librarian leaders could discuss the future of the profession as the state’s districts change. The discussion featured Mary Barbee, director of media services and technology training for Gwinnett County; Michelle Easley, media services program manager for Fulton County; and Michelle Lenderman, the coordinator of library media services for Bibb County.
“They really have hands-on insight into what their counties are doing, and how they’re going forward,” Miller says, noting that TL News Night was a chance to review “some of the neat things that we’re doing, and how media specialists, even though our roles are changing in the scheme of things, are still there to support the schools, support the students, and support the teachers.”
This type of outreach will be a key part of Miller’s upcoming GLMA tenure, she says, as she aims to increase GLMA’s membership, especially among its rural districts. The association is also attempting to connect more of its librarians online through Twitter and other networking efforts, Levine says.
Remaining in the back of some librarians’ minds, however, are the austerity cuts that have impacted education for years, along with the push towards charter schools, according to Andy Spinks, former supervisor of library media education for the Cobb County school district and current GLMA president.
Although there is no “existential threat at the state level to our school library programs,” he says, he remains concerned about what he feels could become a district-by-district battle as the DOE’s changes become fully implemented across the state.
Even districts with strong library media programs—and strong media specialists—have faced tough choices in the past when austerity measures cut deep, says Spinks, whose GLMA tenure ends at the end of February. Although most of the state’s schools do have at least a part-time certified librarian (as some professionals split their time between schools), cuts in some districts have definitely been made over the years, and support staff has dropped dramatically overall.
An even larger concern for Spinks, he tells SLJ, is charter school fervor. “It sounds pretty benign but it’s one of the things that is very fishy when you look beyond it,” he explains. “There’s a lot of money from outside the state being spent to advocate for this. It basically created a government office to force changes that local school districts were not willing to make.”
As more school districts turn charter, “it puts us on the chopping block in a lot of areas,” Spinks says, noting that it creates increasing opportunities at the local level for schools to suggest eliminating their libraries to save funds. “I’m hearing that more and more,” he says. “That’s a pretty decent line item anytime you look at a school budget, the library media program.”
How can librarians combat this notion? Continued advocacy, Spinks says, particularly on the local level [PDF] as he began under his own tenure, he says. While GLMA employs a consulting group that helps lobby for them on a state level—a powerful position for any state library association to have—the grassroots outreach is what will be needed now more than ever, he says.
Growing the grassroots
“The first thing is you’ve got to have a good program that students and teachers love, so that when it’s threatened, they will stand up and fight for it,” he says. “Library media specialists have to show administrators what they do and why it’s important.”
That kind of grassroots support can’t be built overnight, Spinks notes. “You need to have a longstanding relationship with your students, the teachers you’re serving, and also your school administrator. You want it to already be well established in their minds how important it is, if it does get threatened. We haven’t had that big threat at the state level but there’s no reason to think that it’s not coming. With this charter school movement, that threat will always be there.”
“When you’re doing a really great job…then the principal becomes the advocate, so that they protect the library,” Levine adds. That support then extends outwards to district administration.
Parental outreach will also be important as the state continues to implement the Common Core State Standards, Spinks says. “You can’t do [it] without school libraries,” he says. “So that’s another area where it’s just a tremendous opportunity—but we have to take advantage of it. They’re not going to come beating down our door. We have to [say], ‘we can work with you to make this happen.’”
Another effort that GLMA’s membership needs to take, Miller, Spinks, and Levine say, is that of aligning the expectations of the profession across the entire state.
Although active GLMA members agree that most teacher librarians are leaders in their schools when it comes to professional development and the use of instructional technology, it’s still important that the rest of the state’s media specialists are on board with that, helping to buck the librarian-as-book-clerk-only stereotype that some school administrators might still believe.
“The first thing is making sure that you have a job description that everybody agrees on,” Levine says, noting that Georgia’s librarian leaders are seeking to continually upgrade themselves with “modern skills, modern needs, and modern technology.”
Yet Miller and Spinks also caution that media specialists, in keeping with their roles as instructional leaders, need to be mindful how their time is used in their schools. “There are definitely some media specialists that are abused as tech support,” Spinks says. “You have people that are masters level and higher—that’s not who you want replacing toner cartridges, especially when, if they have a strong collaborative instruction program, they will raise student achievement.“