In early April 2014, American Association of School Librarians (AASL) president Gail Dickinson says she received the news that DC Public Schools (DCPS)—in Washington, DC—was heavily recruiting school library media specialists (SLMS), with as many as 30 openings. According to Dickinson, the recruiting likely stems from a combination of postponed retirements and added positions.
“As the economy is improving, we are seeing waves of retirements, and the field will have to begin recruiting heavily to ensure that we have great people stepping in to prove the value of the job,” says Dickinson, adding her predictions for a “brisk” summer hiring season.
Capitol Hill Public School Parents Organization (CHPSPO) activist Peter MacPherson explains that while advocacy efforts are ongoing to address an inconsistent commitment to collection development in school libraries, including a 300,000 volume deficit, DCPS has budgeted additional positions in the Fiscal Year 2015 (FY15) proposal to aid in improving the libraries.
“DCPS is making some effort to recruit librarians, because the system has a large number of empty positions,” says MacPherson.
Based on his observations on how FY15 funding measures have been carried out—including omissions for collection development—MacPherson describes DCPS’s efforts as appearing “more aligned [toward] mollifying the public than a true embrace of the power and success of school library programs.”
In contrast, Jennifer Boudrye, the director of Library Programs at DCPS, says it’s a very exciting time for media specialists to be in the nation’s capital.
“There is support from a budget and a philosophical perspective to have a certified school library media specialist in every DC public school,” she says. “We have many school administrators who understand our role, and they are spreading the word to their colleagues.”
In the past four years, Washington, DC, has consecutively ranked as America’s most literate city based on an annual study from Central Connecticut State University. Focusing on several key indicators of literacy that include educational attainment and library resources, the annual study was published shortly before President Obama released the budget proposal for FY2015 requesting a two percent increase for the Department of Education.
Yet steep budget cuts to education have consistently taken place since the recession, with over two-thirds of states “providing less per-student funding for K-12 education in the current 2014 fiscal year than they did in fiscal year 2008,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Proposed spending cuts in DC schools have been no exception the past several years, with its districts undergoing embattled changes from funding cuts for dozens of school librarian positions to school closure announcements─15 possible closures back in May 2013─from DC education chancellor Kaya Henderson.
Some advocacy efforts to combat the spending cut proposals have included a petition started in 2012, “Restore Librarians to D.C. Schools,” which currently has more than 5,000 supporters and continues to gain traction with new signatures still coming in weekly. The petition was part of a growing response during a time when DC librarians in schools with fewer than 300 students were being let go as a result of budget cuts. Schools with more than 300 students had the option to opt out of hiring a librarian.
DCPS FY14 reflected an increase in budgeted staffing of full-time librarians and media specialists, up eight percent from the previous year. Dickinson points out that a higher number of open, unfilled positions could equally create a potential crisis wherein “school districts will not be able to find school librarians for open positions, [making] the school library a prime target for cuts.” She confirms, in this case, that all recent 30-plus openings will be filled with certified candidates from across the east coast.
“We are seeing great inequity in how library services are delivered in schools. There still are many schools in which the school library program is fully staffed,” explains Dickinson. “The other extreme is a closed and shuttered library, but we are also seeing situations in which library staff has been reduced, hours [have been] cut, or one librarian [is] attempting [to] serve multiple schools.”
Creator of the “Restore Librarians to DC Schools,” Bella Dinh-Zarr, spoke last month at a DC Council Education Budget Oversight Hearing and said to SLJ:
“DCPS now has made a commitment to funding librarians for most schools, but unfortunately many positions are still vacant or filled by non-credentialed aides. DCPS has no additional resources for its librarian recruiting efforts.”
According to Dinh-Zarr, DC schools need an additional $3 million in FY15 for libraries, after spending $3.4 million last fall just for library materials alone.
“[T]he ability to have a sustained campaign [has] made it possible to improve the situation vis-a-vis the libraries,” explains MacPherson of ongoing advocacy efforts that have drawn a constant stream of media attention. “Fortunately the residents of the city do care very much about them and are committed to their success.”
In a similar manner, Boudrye recalls the “tremendous” response to recruitment efforts as part of her reasoning for signing on as director earlier this year.
“I came to DCPS because the support for strong school library programs, from the chancellor down, is extraordinary,” says Boudrye. “The vision of what SLMS can do to have a significant impact on student learning is spreading.”
Sandy Chung is a former UN reporter on health sanitation and currently specializes in communications for architecture. Follow her on Twitter @sndychng.