November 20, 2017

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In Chicago, Bronzeville School Librarian Layoff Inspires Outrage—and Support

 

(UPDATE: December 18, 2015 at 10:35 am ET)

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced on December 17 that Sayigh’s position is being reinstated. She’ll be back in her library after the holiday school break, as reported in the Chicago Sun-Times. “Thanks to a generous anonymous gift, the librarian’s job can be restored at the DuSable campus,” CPS said in a statement. “While we are glad that this will restore a valued position that supports students…we remain concerned that the current financial realities will continue to put our schools in a challenging position as they try to prevent classroom cuts.”

 

And then there were two.

Sara Sayigh, the librarian at Daniel Hale Williams (DHW) School, at DuSable High School on Chicago’s South Side, learned December 9 that her position was being eliminated.

The DuSable High School library has been a resource in continuous existence since the founding of the historic school. It is also the only functioning high school library staffed with a fully-certified librarian in Bronzeville, a historically black neighborhood.

The latest example of a years-long trend

The number of Chicago high schools with a 90 percent or higher African American student body that have a librarian has dropped 84 percent, from 19 schools in 2012 to two (Chicago Vocational Career Academy and Morgan Park High School) this year, according to a December 11 release from the Chicago Teachers Union.

“While it’s not surprising that yet again, the burden of ‘broke on purpose’ budget cuts has fallen on the most segregated schools, this new disparity is alarming. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) must restore these library programs,” says Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union.

Chicago_story_151215In some cases, certified librarians have been kept on payroll, but taken out of the library and reassigned to English classrooms. The physical library spaces have either fallen into disuse or been staffed with volunteers, or employees, without library certifications.

CPS gave Sayigh 21 days notice of her dismissal, per union requirements. That gave her about a week to continue in her post before winter recess. Sayigh believes the timing was strategic. “This way, I’d have the least possible time to agitate, to draw support,” she says. “Honestly, I knew it was coming, but I didn’t expect it until next month.”

Like other laid-off teachers and librarians in the district, Sayigh will be placed in a cadre pool, from which she could be called for work. But the bottom line is clear to Sayigh. “The intention is to push me out,” she says. “I’m over a certain age, and I have a master’s degree. I’m not cost effective in the eyes of the Board of Ed.”

No lack of support

“I’m seeing red,” says K.C. Boyd, lead library media specialist at East St. Louis (IL) Senior High School and former school librarian at Wendell Phillips Academy School, another high school with a predominantly black student population in Chicago. “You look across the city and see the most vulnerable students in these schools. The school libraries are safe havens. They have the same resources as Chicago public libraries. But kids won’t cross gang lines to get to the public libraries, going straight home instead.” Then when they get home, they either don’t have the hardware to get online, or they don’t have WiFi, or both, she adds. “Aside from digital resources, the school library is really the only option for some of these kids to discover books that interest them and that support what they’re being taught in class.”

Boyd, a Library Journal 2015 Mover & Shaker, remains an advocate for the librarians who are still there. “The board has a good way of scaring them into a corner. That’s one of the reasons why I speak up for them. Asian, black, white, Hispanic, it doesn’t matter, we’re all librarians. We’re all brothers and sisters in this struggle.”

Boyd, who sensed her job was soon to be cut, took her latest position at the behest of her former principal, now the assistant superintendent in her new district. But the other librarians “stuck it out and got burned,” notes Boyd. “I can’t forget what’s going on back home.”

On December 11, Sayigh’s students organized a “read in” to protest the layoff, all without adult help, says Sayigh.  About 200 students participated. ”One of the principals was trying to discipline some of the students for participating, and set up security guards,” she recalls. “Otherwise, we might have gotten twice as many.”

Parents have been making phone calls, signing petitions, and stopping by Sayigh’s desk to tell her that they’re behind her. One mother vowed to go downtown to the school board offices to complain, and bring others with her.

“The parents understand this is a civil rights issue. We’ve had at least one librarian at this school since 1936. We’ve had many giants of Chicago history attend here. This is the historic black belt of Chicago, from which the likes of Nat King Cole and Harold Washington emerged. The school has landmark status,” says Sayigh.

DuSablelibrarydoor

From the mouths of babes

Sayigh has been struck by how well the kids grasp what’s at stake. When administrators arrived at the read-in, student leaders were prepared. “When they were told not to worry, that they could still take out books with a volunteer in the library, they knew exactly what to say,” shares Sayigh. The kids asked the administrators point blank whether that person would be able to teach them how to research hard projects, know what new books they’d like best, help them write college essays.

In contrast, according to Sayigh, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel made a comment that all children should be treated like his children. “His children go to a University of Chicago Laboratory School, where they have seven librarians. That’s comparable?,” she says. “The kids understand what’s going on better than the adults involved.”

Ways to show support

Sign the petition on Change.org, started by the father of one of Sayigh’s colleagues. “He would drive from Michigan to help us with the Chicago Metro History Fair, and saw what the library meant to the kids,” explains Sayigh. Concerned advocates can also contact the Chicago Board of Education Chief Executive Office at 773-553-1500. Email addresses aren’t easy to suss out; the contact us page seems to be the only such option.

“It’s not about me,” says Sayigh, “it’s about the kids. These kids have rights. The Board of Ed needs to know this is important to a lot of people, no matter where they live.”

A request for comment from the Chicago Board of Education was not answered.

Christina Vercelletto About Christina Vercelletto

Christina Vercelletto is School Library Journal’s former news editor. An award-winning writer and editor, Vercelletto has held staff positions at Babytalk, Parenting, Scholastic Parent & Child, and NYMetroParents.com.

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Comments

  1. Nora Wiltse says:

    Thank you for covering this important topic. School librarians are disappearing across the country, and in Chicago it has been so rapid and devastating. Thank you for allowing our students’ voices to be heard!

  2. Evelyn Kaehler says:

    Would any of the predominately white schools be willing to give up their librarian so that DuSable could keep theirs?

    • If you look at the library curriculum of the northern suburban schools, you will see that the students start learning how to search the Internet and databases for information in kindergarden. Not so in the Chicago Public Schools. The predominantly white schools value libraries and librarianship for their children. It doesn’t seem to be important for the predominantly black schools. As long as the kids know how to log into Google and how to send an email, that’s librarianship to the powers that be. That’s all they need to know how to do. The Chicago Public Schools are absolutely pitiful.

  3. One of the reasons why I resigned as a librarian back in 2008—I saw the handwriting on the wall. It’s a dead end career and certainly a dead career within the Chicago Public Schools. Signing this petition is a complete waste of time.