When librarian K.C. Boyd first came to Wendell Phillips Academy High School in Chicago in 2010, it was ranked second to last among schools in Illinois. Since then, according to a June 2012 WGN news broadcast about the high school, its overall test scores have jumped, especially in reading: 18.2 percent of students are meeting or exceeding state standards, compared with 6.5 percent in 2012, and the school has moved from a level three rating to a level one, (or an “Excellent Standing”). Boyd has transformed the school’s reading culture and pioneered the school’s use of social media. And while she isn’t entirely responsible for the school’s turnaround—the Academy for Urban School Leadership, a nonprofit organization that helps chronically low-performing schools, became involved in 2010 as well—she’s definitely had an impact.
Many of Boyd’s students are what she refers to as reemergent readers, or students who have come back to reading after losing interest. These students, she says, haven’t had library services since elementary school. Because there was no one in their lives to encourage leisure reading, many gave up around third or fourth grade and in high school found it jarring to be assigned novels to read by teachers. Boyd’s work was cut out for her, but she took a nuanced approach to her students.
“I didn’t start off with what I thought they should be reading. I listened to them.”
Her students most enjoyed reading manga, poetry, vampire stories, and street lit—and Boyd based her purchasing decisions on their preferences.
Though many educators might shy away from incorporating street lit into their collections, Boyd has been a big proponent of the genre and believes that it “[serves] as a teaching tool.” She’s sensitive to her students’ backgrounds, as many come from neighborhoods where violence or crime is common. She can warn students against risky or dangerous behavior, but “if they read a story with characters in similar situations, that story sits with them much more than what I would ever say. Street lit feeds into the social and emotional issues my students are dealing with.”
Boyd’s willingness to purchase these street lit titles shows a deep understanding and perception of her community. The books are usually softcovers, and, Boyd says, by the time they come back to the library, they’re bent and clearly used, because parents, siblings, and cousins end up reading them as well.
“I have parents who like reading books within the genre, and they like checking out books from me.”
Her flexible approach has worked: “I used to drag kids into the library. Now they come in willingly.” Not only that, many of these teens have moved on to more complex materials. The students whom Boyd met a few years ago as freshmen have recently graduated, and she couldn’t be happier. As the entire class of 2014, they earned $2.3 million of scholarship funds. “I’m proud of them. They’ve come a long way.”
While Boyd’s gains in the school’s reading culture have been phenomenal, she hasn’t stopped there. Social media is her latest frontier, and she has truly pioneered the school’s use of Pinterest. While preparing for Black History Month this year, she chose to use the site to share Internet resources instead of a more traditional list, teaching students how to scan and pin their own images.
The use of Pinterest took off around the school, with both students and staff becoming intersted, and Boyd continued the effort, creating a Pinterest board for National Poetry Month this past April. A recent legacy project with one of the English classes uses Pinterest to archive former administrators and noteworthy alums, such as singers Sam Cooke and Nat King Cole.
“Things have changed,” Boyd says. “[Librarian] positions are becoming very tech oriented.” But she thinks it’s crucial that school librarians stay current with the needs of their staff and patrons. “In today’s libraries, you have to be the heartbeat of your school.”
Boyd’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed by her peers. Currently enrolled as a doctoral student at Dominican University’s School of Library and Information Science, she’s garnering attention in the greater library community.
“She’s a really rising powerful star,” Joyce Valenza, SLJ blogger and assistant professor at Rutgers University, School of Communication and Information, said. “She speaks for an underserved community and [represents] the positive force of the voice of a teacher librarian.”
Boyd is aware how difficult the situation is for librarians, particularly now, with cutbacks in library services throughout the country, including within the Chicago Public School District. This past June, at a meeting for the Chicago Board of Education, Chicago Public School librarian and mom Megan Cusick, informed the board that “staffing projections show more than half of all CPS schools will lack a certified librarian next year,” according to a June 25 Chicago Sun-Times article. “31 of the 50 schools that received children from closed schools do not have a ‘professionally staffed school library,'” testified Cusick.
Chicago Public School District has had its share of budgetary woes in the past years, not the least being a wave of public schools closures in the past year. It takes gumption to be a leader in this landscape of librarian cuts.
“I was a kid in a suburban school, and I had library services in elementary, middle, and high school. I had a foundation for reading,” she said. “I want the same thing I had for my students. Every kid deserves to have a library program and a certified librarian to provide them with services.”