February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Chicago Public Schools Continue To Cut Deeply Into Educator, Librarian Positions

The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system is still hemorrhaging teachers, with new layoffs announced just before students returned to classrooms this week. The layoffs follow a trend that has plagued CPS, and the state of Illinois, where school librarian positions continue to drop.

“Illinois is one of the many states losing licensed school librarian positions,” says Patti Fleser, president of the Illinois School Library Media Association (ISLMA) and a school librarian at Deer Path Middle School in Lake Forest for the past 10 years, by email. “This has been happening quite frequently in downstate Illinois for a while, but when a district only has a few hundred students, the public at large does not notice.”

About 80 school librarians reportedly lost their positions in last month’s layoffs, with CPS bringing the total number of librarian positions budgeted for the 2016–17 school year to just 160—from a high of 454 positions in place in 2012, according to a story by news organization WBEZ.

School Library Journal reached out to CPS by email and phone, but was not granted an interview nor given details to verify how many school librarians or teachers were let go this past month. Requests made by phone and email to Stephanie Gadlin, communications director of the Chicago Teachers Union, were not returned either.

Sara Sayigh, who is now in her 14th year as the school librarian at Daniel Hale Williams School at DuSable High School, received a notice that her position was being eliminated for the 2015–16 school year. But she was reinstated about two weeks later after her students protested her firing.


Sara Sayigh at her school in Chicago

At the time, the number of Chicago high schools with 90 percent or more African American students that have school librarians had dropped from a high of 19 in 2012 to just two before Sayigh got her position restored in December 2015.

“Most [high] schools don’t have librarians,” she says. “Now I am only one of three people who work in a library in a predominantly African American high school. Not only has there been this discrimination of our profession, but it’s disproportionately affecting African American students.”

Scott Walter affirms Sayigh’s assessment. As a parent of an eighth grader in CPS, he’s watched school librarians disappear from schools in Chicago—including his daughter’s K–8 school, The Nettelhorst School, where he also serves as an elected parent representative on Nettelhorst’s Local School Council.

The last school year Walter’s daughter’s school had a librarian was 2012–13, before the librarian was reassigned to work in a classroom, says Walter, who is also university librarian at DePaul University Library. Now a part-time paraprofessional works in that school library for a few hours a day.

Walter says that he has heard those at the district level saying that digital libraries and virtual content are just as useful to students as having a credentialed school librarian on staff. That rhetoric, he believes, helps CPS when it cuts school librarians or forces principals to reassign them to classrooms.

While moves to immediately reinstate the school librarians who have lost their jobs do not seem to be on the table, some are trying to bring attention to these layoffs. ISLMA is working to craft a letter in support of Chicago’s school librarians, says Fleser. Political action group EveryLibrary has posted a petition as well, asking for funding to be restored to Chicago’s school librarians and school libraries by noting that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act make these positions part of federal policy and law.

Sayigh says she already sees an effect at her high school on students who haven’t had an opportunity to work with school librarians in their earlier grades. She believes that if school librarian positions continue to shrink within Chicago’s public schools, students will continue to feel the impact. “They don’t always understand the point of research and reading,” she says. “Some children don’t have an opportunity to go into a library, except for at school, and CPS is taking that from them.”



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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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  1. Sherry Paul says:

    With all the political emphasis on the high crime rate and dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago, with the questions of who is responsible and who is supposed to “fix” it, maybe someone should take a look at the school system and put some money and effort into education. Education helps open doors and shows another way of life is possible. Librarians work with students daily to encourage them to pursue their own interests and to broaden their world view. These students see only the hopelessness of the neighborhood and the lack of caring of those responsible for their education. No, money won’t fix everything, but caring teachers & librarians who are supported by the administration and school board can surely help. Get a clue, Chicago!!