November 24, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Attuned to Equity: April Wathen, 2017 Hero of Equitable Access

Photo by Jill Springer

George Washington Carver in Lexington Park, MD, was the first elementary school in rural St. Mary’s County to get a maker space and 3-D printer—and to offer computer science. In the school’s learning commons, kids experiment with robotics and other tech, produce newscasts, learn about digital citizenship, or take part in the Student Book Committee. George Washington Carver is also a Title I school, where more than 80 percent of the 635 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and some 20 to 30 attending families are homeless at any time.

The school’s library programs are the work of April Wathen, a teacher librarian there since January 2014. “Each day we work to prove that being a Title I school does not define who we are or what we are capable of doing,” says Wathen, who hunts down and applies for grants on her own time. “It goes back to finding creative ways to get funding. Community partnerships are huge, as is establishing relationships in the community to support you.”

To supplement her annual budget ($4,000 in 2016–17), Wathen brought in more than $18,000 in grants in the past three years. The biggest was $10,000 from Code.org in 2015, which paid for the school’s first computer science equipment and 3-D printer. Other grants include $3,500 in books for summer reading and $3,700 for a wellness program.

Asked why it’s vital to bring maker spaces to a Title I school, Wathen says, “I think it’s more important for our students from disadvantaged backgrounds. They’re already [experiencing] some challenges that might not [lead to] constructive problem-solving. They’re learning that their voices are important.”

Librarians at other regional schools have taken notice of Wathen. “She is equally comfortable on the floor with kindergarten students programming a robot as she is encouraging fifth grade students learning to present using multimedia tools,” says Jennifer Sturge, who coordinates library programs for neighboring Calvert County Public Schools. “To observe her teach is to see a master in action,” adds Denise D. Mandis, who oversees library and media programs for St. Mary’s County Public Schools.

Wathen says her programs are exercises in fostering self-confidence—which means encouraging girls (and boys) to try robotics, involving students in library decisions such as budgeting and selecting books, and making sure that the Student Book Committee is a diverse group of learners.

Wathen’s many library offerings include
a Bee-Bot, Sphero BB8, Makey Makey, BreakoutEDU, and diverse graphic novels.
Photo by Kristina Fuentes

Digital citizenship is another priority. When Wathen talks to students about the Internet, she learns as much from them as they do from her. “We have candid conversations,” she says. “There are no consequences—just learning opportunities.”

Since many of her students don’t have computers or broadband at home, they access the Internet primarily through mobile devices—which makes it harder for adults to monitor content. Phones are off-limits during class, but Wathen believes it’s important to teach kids skills to manage digital usage in their free time. She provides tools to help them handle inappropriate content and to judge the reliability of news sources. “If they see something that’s inappropriate, they shut the computer and tell an adult,” Wathen says. “We talk about bullying, what to do if they see it.”

Another goal is to get educators to understand the importance of teaching digital literacy. She’s spoken on the topic at Common Ground, a Maryland educators’ conference, and will participate in a related panel at the American Association of School Librarians conference in November.

Looking far ahead, this self-described “energizer bunny” could see herself in school system leadership. She has the right outlook: “Our challenges do not stop us—they make us stronger!”

About the Award

SLJ presents the fourth annual School Librarian of the Year Award in partnership with sponsor Scholastic Library Publishing. The award honors a K–12 library professional for outstanding achievement and the exemplary use of 21st-century tools and services to engage children and teens toward fostering multiple literacies.

This year’s award recognizes one winner and four finalists honored as Heroes from a strong pool of 42 applicants. The winner receives a $2,500 cash award, plus $2,500 worth of print and digital materials from Scholastic Library Publishing. The Heroes each receive $500 in materials of their choice from Scholastic Library Publishing.


Maker Hero: A standout creative individual leading the way in promoting hands-on learning with entrepreneurial and innovative programming in the maker tradition.

Hero of Equitable Access: A champion who promotes equal access to information, library services, and technology in his/her library and school, with particular attention to reaching the underserved.

Hero of Family Outreach: This model of engagement connects with families, helping meet the unique needs of the community and helping promote a home/school connection through the library.

Hero of Collaboration: An exemplar who demonstrates great collaboration skills, teaming with a teacher, staff, administrators, or community members at the local or district level—all toward benefiting students.


The 2017 Judges

Todd Burleson, 2016 School Librarian of the Year; Glenn Robbins, superintendent, Tabernacle (NJ) Schools; and the editors of School Library Journal.

Read more about the award.

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Grace Hwang Lynch About Grace Hwang Lynch

Grace Hwang Lynch is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has written for PBS, PRI, Salon, and BlogHer. Follow her on Twitter at @HapaMamaGrace.

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