February 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Chicago To Add New School Libraries—Even As It Closes Schools

As Chicago prepares to permanently shutter 49 K–12 schools and one 9–11 school program for the coming school year, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is planning to open four new stand-alone school libraries for the 2013–2014 school year—and spend more than $2 million for the facilities.

“I am thrilled that each welcoming school will receive the necessary investment of a central library in their school this fall,” Lisa E. Perez, network library coordinator for CPS Department of Libraries, tells School Library Journal. “By consolidating underutilized schools, we are able to provide students with access to a quality, 21st Century education, including the opportunity to learn the value of libraries.”

Perkins Bass Elementary School, John Harvard Elementary School of Excellence, Leland Elementary Schoo,l and John T. McCutcheon Elementary will together receive $2 million just to build new library spaces in their schools, according to Molly Poppe, deputy press secretary for CPS. Additional monies will go into capital funding for new air conditioning, windows, paint, and new cabinetry, among other needs. The remaining so-called welcoming schools already have school libraries, according to Poppe.

How these libraries will be run, however, is unknown. Teachers and school librarians currently on staff at the closing schools will be eligible to follow their students to each new school. But Poppe says it won’t have final staffing numbers until budgets are finalized in the fall.

“We don’t know what [staffing] will look like because we don’t know how many students will be going to welcoming schools,” says Poppe. “We will look at that over the summer, on how we’ll allocate resources.”

Chicago’s plan to shutter the 50 schools for 2013–2014 follows a trend happening in major cities across the United States from Philadelphia to New York City—with municipalities shuttering schools for what they say is lack of enrollment, and, as a result, lack of funds. The decision has been met with anger from families and educators alike, with parents attacking CPS for selecting schools that seem to target minorities, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Chicago parents last month filed two lawsuits, arguing both that the proposed closings are discriminatory, because the overwhelming majority of the students are those districts are African-American, and that they would be hurtful to special-needs students.

“I’m representing parents whose neighborhood schools have meant a lot to their kids and to them, and the lawsuit is really a cry from them to be treated fairly and to ultimately get the attention of the school board to the problems they face,” Tom Geoghegan, the lead attorney for the lawsuits, tells SLJ. “There aren’t enough resources in any of these Chicago schools, including textbooks. But the claim that these closings come because the schools are underutilized and under-sourced is a hollow one. The answer to under-sourcing is not to jam kinds into larger classes.”

Calls to Chicago’s Office of the Mayor were not returned.

National organizations, including Save Our Schools, have rallied against the U.S. Department of Education to push for changes to policies that include continuing to close public schools in favor of charter schools. School libraries have also been affected, with school librarian positions being cut across the nation, including most recently in Elyria, OH.

“In some ways it always seems to me it’s like a parent saying, ‘No I’m not going to buy you any new books until you improve your reading,’” says Gail Dickinson, president-elect of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), who is nonetheless optimistic about the fate of school librarians and libraries in the country. “Nothing this important can be endangered.”

But while Marie Szyman, a teacher-librarian at Nathaniel Greene School in Chicago and vice president of the Chicago Teacher-Librarians Association, is not in danger of losing her job for the coming fall, she’s seen many benefits—from matching grants to professional development days for its school librarians—slowing disappear in the Windy City. And she’s watched as her students’ own library books slowly fall apart, not to be replaced. To her, the potential loss of some of her colleagues is a casualty—even as she knows her own position is secure.

“I feel we’re all affected,” says Szyman “What happens to one school happens to all of us.”

Additional reporting by Sarah Bayliss.

Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.

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