A Dream Library for Students with Special Needs | Take the Lead

A principal of a school for students with multiple disabilities spearheaded superb library services.
hampton_headshotEntering a school as a new administrator comes with many exciting opportunities and some hard decisions. For me, our library presented both. I spent 14 years as principal of Harris-Hillman School in Nashville, TN, serving students with multiple disabilities from ages 3–22. Most of our students have intellectual abilities in the severe to profound range. For this reason, the library was filled with picture books and stories appropriate for young children. Classes came to the library once a week, and all students participated in the same activities. The librarian felt that was all that the students would be able to understand. After several unsuccessful attempts to find a librarian who shared my dream of age-appropriate materials and varying activities for different groups of children, I made the difficult decision to delete my librarian position to address other staffing needs. However, over the next couple of years, I carefully followed the direction our district was taking in media services and began to once again dream of having a library program at Harris-Hillman. Working with children who have multiple disabilities requires utilizing many different types of materials for student access. Including technology within the library program would allow us to open up the world of books to all our students. For several years, I campaigned for adding a librarian to my faculty, and I was told that our small student population didn’t support the staffing ratio to hire one. During that same time, one of my classroom teachers, Stephanee Rausch, was looking for a new opportunity. I made the decision to move her into a literacy/curriculum development role. With Stephanee in place, we began using our allocation for library materials to add books that were appropriate for middle schoolers and young adults. We also weeded lots of items that were older than we were! At the same time, we decided that we would realize our dream of having a curriculum to meet our student needs—by creating our own. A crucial component in our minds was a literacy connection. We began using district-allocated funds for books, along with donated funds. We were growing our fiction collection—and, for the first time, expanding our non-fiction materials. In order to provide the best materials for our students, we developed adapted, textured versions of many books for each classroom that would provide concrete examples of concepts and storylines. Stephanee was really enjoying her new role working with the library and made the decision to return to school for her library science degree. All the while, I was continuing to ask for the addition of a certified librarian at Harris-Hillman. In the spring of 2014, I received the exciting news that my wish had come true: the following year, I would be able to hire a librarian. Even better news was that I could hire Stephanee, who was just a few months form receiving her certification. It was important to me that we hired a librarian who was familiar with new trends in literature and media instruction, but most important was that the librarian understood the global issues of our students with complex multiple needs. Over the next couple of years, we expanded the library even more. We became connected to Limitless Libraries, a cooperative program between Nashville Public Library (NPL) and Metro Nashville Public Schools, which gave our students and faculty access to the NPL collection and provided additional materials for our own library. We held a book fair for the first time ever, and the Family Night event drew the largest crowd of any after-school activity we had ever had. Our biggest problem at this point was space. You see, our library is actually just a section of the cafeteria and entrance area. This means that there is no privacy, and it makes scheduling library activities very difficult. It also meant extremely limited space for materials, and we were quickly approaching capacity. In the fall of 2015, I received one of the best phone calls imaginable. Harris-Hillman had been chosen to receive a library makeover from Limitless Libraries. Finally, an opportunity for the library to become a true focal point of the school. We spent a year working on plans that would create a state-of-the-art facility, but more importantly, we would be able to accommodate our very special students. I left Harris-Hillman at the end of September to teach at Lipscomb University. One of my greatest feelings of accomplishment during my career as a principal is the creation of the library program and the addition of the new library.
Dr. Robbie Hampton is assistant professor of special education at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN.
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