When librarian K.C. Boyd 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 the Chicago Public School’s (CPS) 2013 Progress Report, the facility of about 600 students has made major gains. Phillips, located in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, received a 2011 School Improvement Award from the Illinois State Board of Education and moved from a level three rating to a level one (“Excellent Standing”), while the class of 2014’s ACT scores jumped from 12.8 in 2011 to 15.2 in 2013.
Boyd has transformed the school’s reading culture and its use of social media. While she isn’t solely responsible for Phillips’s turnaround, she has clearly made an impact. The Academy for Urban School Leadership, a nonprofit organization that helps chronically low-performing schools, also stepped in to help Phillips in 2010, presenting in-depth analysis of problems, providing new teachers, and offering training to educators.
Challenges—in and outside school
Many of Boyd’s students are what she refers to as “reemergent readers,” kids 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 highlight the value of leisure reading, many gave up around third or fourth grade.
As younger children, many Phillips teens also lacked the encouragement and motivation to become library users, according to Jada Henderson, a former student of Boyd’s at Phillips and Chicago’s Copernicus Elementary School, where Boyd also worked as a librarian from 1999 to 2002. “[Public libraries] existed, but no one ever told us, ‘Go to the library and check out books,’” Henderson says.
Boyd says that territorial gang violence in Chicago prevents many kids from visiting Chicago Public Library (CPL) branches, despite CPL’s strong programming. Her students often don’t feel comfortable crossing gang lines in order to visit the public library after school, and going home from there after dark can be dangerous. “I see more kids trying to get out of the neighborhood and get home [after school] than anything else,” she says.
She is also quick to point out the vibrant history of Bronzeville. The first neighborhood in the Chicago areas where African Americans settled during the Great Migration of the 1920s and 1930s, Bronzeville was known as the “Black Metropolis” in the early 20th century and was home to legends such as activist and journalist Ida B. Wells and jazz great Louis Armstrong. Phillips itself boasts accomplished alums, many of whom are depicted in the school’s murals (pictured), such as professional boxer Lee Roy Murphy, Vivian G. Harsh, who was Chicago Public Library System’s first black head librarian, and R&B singer Sam Cooke.
Embracing street lit
Boyd’s work was cut out for her at Phillips, but she took a nuanced approach. “I didn’t start off with what I thought they should be reading,” she says. “I listened to them.”
Her teens most enjoyed reading manga, poetry, vampire stories, and street lit. Boyd bases her purchasing decisions on their preferences, working with an average annual budget of about $5,000. In addition to incorporating manga titles such as the “Bleach” and “One Piece” series (both Shueisha) and paranormal romances, she stocks her collection with titles targeted to hi-lo readers, including “Bluford High” (Townsend) and street lit such as Treasure Blue’s Fly Betty (Cash Money Content, 2013) and Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever (Pocket Books, 1999).
Though many educators 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.” Karen Edmonson, a middle school science teacher who worked with Boyd at Chicago’s Ninos Heroes School, where Boyd was librarian from 2004 to 2007, witnessed the librarian’s ability to turn middle school students on to pleasure reading. Though other teachers encouraged students to read classic literature about the African American experience, such as Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Dial, 1976), according to Edmonson, Boyd preferred to push students toward books that resonated with them.
Edmonson says that before she met Boyd, “I didn’t know [street lit] existed for kids.” She adds, “The ‘Bluford’ series…fostered a love of reading. The kids would come to me and say, ‘I read all the [Bluford] books in your library. Why don’t you have any more?’”
Boyd’s willingness to purchase these titles shows a deep understanding and perception of her community. Many of her students come from neighborhoods where violence or crime is common. She can warn them against risky or dangerous behavior, she says, 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.”
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.”
A family calling
A lifelong bibliophile, Boyd grew up in University Park, a middle-class suburb south of Chicago, and attended high school in nearby Crete. She always had access to school librarians and finds it easy to spread a love of reading. However, librarianship wasn’t always a part of her life. As the child of two teachers, she was aware of the challenges that educators face and shied away. She initially worked in media, for a public television station, before going on to a corporate job at FedEx. These were not sparking a passion.
Boyd’s father, a science teacher, advised her to go into education, knowing that would be more fulfilling for her. He warned her, though, that she would need not only knowledge, but patience and a great sense of humor. Boyd obtained an MLIS from Chicago State University and her MA in education administration from Governors State University. She hasn’t looked back. “I like getting up and going to school every day,” she says. “It’s a joy.”
A library to call their own
Aware of the conditions that make going to the public library a challenge for students, Boyd encourages heavy use of the library during the school day, urging classroom teachers to schedule library time. “She would make these really cool displays of books, so when you walked into the library, it caught your eye,” says Henderson. “During lunch…kids could just come in and play around on devices [such as iPads].”
“I used to drag kids into the library,” Boyd says. “Now they come in willingly.”
Gloria Washington, special education teacher at Phillips, says that the library is packed all day and passes the true popularity test: “It’s full every lunch period.”
The students Boyd met a few years ago as freshmen recently graduated, and the class of 2014 collectively earned $2.3 million in scholarships. “I’m proud of them. They’ve come a long way,” she says.
It’s clear that Boyd’s reader’s advisory efforts have made an impact. Henderson, now a freshman studying English at Jackson State University with ambitions of attending law school or teaching English, says that she was daunted by the college application process. Boyd offered advice and loaned Henderson her signed, personal copy of Derrius Quarles’s MillionDollarScholar: Winning the Scholarship Race (Million Dollar Scholar, 2011), a guide aimed at college-bound students written by a young man who earned more than $1 million in aid and scholarship funds.
“Some people teach, but [others] go above and beyond to develop lasting friendships,” Henderson says. “It’s important to have someone in your corner.”
Taking on tech
Boyd has also made great strides with technology and social media, taking advantage of the resources at her disposal. When Devon Horton, then assistant principal of Phillips, currently assistant superintendent of District 189 in East St. Louis, IL, asked Boyd to restructure the school news system, she took the idea and ran with it. Previously, the news was announced over the intercom and interrupted class time.
Relying primarily on iPads—obtained through the CPS Department of Libraries 2012 VITAL Technology Grant—Boyd helped her students create YouTube videos and a Twitter feed reporting on school news, from pep rallies and field trips to profiles of noteworthy students. Boyd, who also has an MA in media communications, supervised the students as they wrote scripts, edited videos, and learned to use the iPads. The project resulted in Boyd teaching an elective course on media communication, “Behind the Paws.” It also garnered the once-failing Phillips a 2013 CPS Spotlight on Technology Award. “[Boyd] really helped to build the brand of Wendell Phillips Academy,” said Horton.
While preparing for Black History Month in 2014, Boyd chose to use Pinterest to share Internet resources instead of a more traditional list, and taught students how to scan and pin their own images. Pinterest took off at the school, among students and staff alike. Boyd created a pin board for National Poetry Month in April. Collaborating with Boyd, an English class used the site for a legacy project that highlighted former administrators and noteworthy alums, such as singers Cooke and Nat King Cole.
For a rising star, challenges loom
Currently a doctoral student at Dominican University’s School of Library and Information Science, Boyd is garnering attention in the greater library community. “She’s a really rising, powerful star,” says Joyce K. Valenza, SLJ blogger and assistant professor at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information. “She speaks for an underserved community and [represents] the positive force of the voice of a teacher librarian.”
Boyd’s work also addresses the challenges facing Chicago school librarians. CPS has had its share of budgetary problems—including a wave of public school closures in the last year—and the situation for librarians is dire. Thirty-three librarians have been laid off in 2014, many assigned to teaching jobs outside of the library. Chicago’s reassignment of school librarians, who defended Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (Pantheon, 2009) when administrators sought to ban it in some schools last year, is a threat to students’ freedom to read, asserts the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (http://ow.ly/BiBXa).
In January, Boyd helped start Chi Schools Librarians, a task force that is part of the Chicago Teachers Union. Its goal is that every public school in the city have a certified teacher librarian. The group met with CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett in August 2014, voicing their concerns and emphasizing the importance of librarians within the school. Though Byrd-Bennett has said that the pool of quality librarians is diminished, Boyd and her colleagues maintain that the cuts are finance driven. Boyd says, “You can have a good library program, but if the money is not there, they can close the program and keep it closed.”
“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,” Boyd says. “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.”