Win-Win: When School Libraries Partner with Local Organizations, Everyone Benefits

Community organizations, businesses, and local residents are often eager to help their neighborhood school libraries—they’re just waiting for someone to ask. These partnership resources and toolkits can get you started.
WePAC staff celebrate the opening of Philadelphia’s Andrew Hamilton Elementary School library in January. Photo courtesy of WePAC

WePAC staff celebrate the opening of Philadelphia’s Andrew Hamilton Elementary School library in January.
Photo courtesy of WePAC

Community organizations, businesses, and local residents are often eager to help their neighborhood school libraries—they’re just waiting for someone to ask. That’s what Mary Catherine Coleman, an information services specialist at Francis W. Parker School in Chicago, learned when she wanted to give her first graders a real-world example of a community helper.

The students were reading Nancy Coffelt’s Fred Stays with Me! (Little, Brown, 2011) and Carolina Adderson’s Norman, Speak! (Groundwood, 2014), both of which feature therapy dogs. So when Coleman asked them what community helpers they wanted to learn more about, the students unanimously chose the furry kind. After a few calls, Coleman found Rainbow Animal Assisted Therapy, a volunteer organization that provides a variety of services, including therapy dogs for children with special needs and teaching dog safety.

“They were excited to be able to share what they are doing,” Coleman says. “They are passionate about their work.”

After the children learned more about the organization and prepared some questions, Rainbow handlers brought six dogs to the school for a visit and spent the morning talking to the children about how the dogs—all family pets—are trained and certified to work in hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. The students gathered in small groups so they could have more contact with the animals.

“It was a wonderful, real tangible connection with what they had learned from their research,” Coleman says. “It really made a lasting impression on the students.”

The project is one of many that demonstrates the important role that community partners can play at a school library. Such partnerships not only benefit the school, particularly when funding for library services falls short, but can also help community organizations reach their goals and even contribute to overall neighborhood improvements. In short, successful partnerships benefit everyone involved, whether it’s with a small business or a business with millions to give away. Plus, looking for partnership options outside of the box can yield strong results: offers of support can come from unexpected places.

Starting small

Partnerships that start off small often grow into long-term relationships or evolve into situations involving several partnering organizations. In Houston, the Weekley Family YMCA proposed to hold after-school tutoring sessions for children in the library at Shearn Elementary School. One of the volunteer tutors, a retired engineer, began reading to various classes and is working to recruit other senior citizens to get involved. The Y also brought in students from Houston Baptist University to set up the school’s holiday book fair and distribute donated school uniforms to low-income students.

“Any time we can get other organizations and community volunteers involved with our children, the children learn that the community cares about them and believes in them,” says Shearn librarian Lisa S. Robinson. She adds that having the tutorials in the library reinforces the value of books in the lives of both students and volunteers.

Creative multi-partner initiatives can yield dramatic results for a school. Almost 10 years ago, Connie Phelps-Bozek became the community school coordinator at Wolfe Street Academy (WSA), a small, K–5 school just north of Baltimore Harbor. Her job at one of the city’s first community schools is to work with local partners to bring additional services and programs to students and families—from afterschool and summer learning opportunities to annual dental exams for students provided by the University of Maryland School of Dentistry.

But she had a hard time addressing the school’s lack of a library. That’s when the Upper Fells Point Improvement Association (UFPIA), a neighborhood organization, stepped in. Phelps-Bozek worked with UFPIA members to turn office space near the cafeteria into a “reading room” and a computer lab. A grant from the Carson Scholars Fund, presidential candidate Ben Carson’s nonprofit organization, provided books and furniture. The school also reached out to the University of Maryland School of Social Work, which brought interns into the school to help organize materials and integrate new ones. Mollie Fein, a retired public librarian and a UFPIA member, helped catalog the materials, so students can check out a book each week—just as if they attended a larger school with a fully operational library.

A therapy dog visits Chicago’s Francis W. Parker School.

A therapy dog visits Chicago’s Francis W. Parker School.

A supporting role

While individuals such as Phelps-Bozek show how powerful partnerships can be, library organizations emphasize that volunteers are no replacement for certified, full-time school librarians. Instead, they are a way to get community members involved in the library and in supporting student learning.

Engaging community partners can give school librarians more time to spend with students and teachers, says Leslie Preddy, the president of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL). “Having volunteers in the library frees up the school librarian for higher-level tasks,” she says, such as teaching, leading staff development, technology implementation, and collection development.

As research affirms the link between strong school libraries and higher student achievement, partnerships can help struggling districts get closer to the goal of having a staffed library. Scholastic’s 2016 edition of School Libraries Work! features national and state-level studies that illustrate libraries’ positive impact on student learning. In addition, an April report by Elizabeth Coker, a researcher for the Center for Strong Schools at the University of Washington-Tacoma, shows that test scores and graduation rates are higher in schools with certified teacher-librarians and quality library facilities.

Partnerships are also critical in this age of fluctuating school budgets, where funding for library positions and materials can change from year to year. In a 2014 survey of library supervisors by the Lilead Project, 23 percent of respondents reported a decrease in district-level funding from the previous year, and 25 percent saw more non-certified staff members replacing certified staff.

Over the last 15 years, the Heart of America Foundation has raised funds to upgrade 16 school libraries in the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS)—stepping in at a time when funding was tight. In 2012, more than a third of the district’s schools even began the school year without a librarian because of how the positions were funded. In all, the foundation has brought in over $5 million from corporations such as Target, funding not only the renovation of the spaces, but also providing 900,000 books, including ebooks and other materials. Schools can apply for the scholarships, and Anna Gregory, a spokeswoman for DCPS, says Heart of America Foundation representatives always take time to investigate the needs of each school library. “They meet with the school staff,” she says. “They work with all the people who have ownership over that building.”

In Baltimore, Patricia Rickle (left) and Julia Malanka, volunteers with UFPIA, sort books at the the new Wolfe Street Academy reading area. Courtesy of Mollie Fein

In Baltimore, Patricia Rickle (left) and Julia Malanka, volunteers with UFPIA, sort books at the the new Wolfe Street Academy reading area.
Courtesy of Mollie Fein

Unexpected partners

Partnerships can yield a broad impact far beyond school walls. In Baltimore, Fein has watched her neighborhood change for the better, in part because of the school’s improvement. More families are moving in and there is growing pride in WSA’s academic success.

While local businesses or nonprofit organizations are willing to help, librarians should remember that they often want to benefit as well—whether through recognition or something more practical. “It is important to look at these partnerships as a two-way street,” says Brian Johnson, the library media specialist at Lakeside Junior High School in Springdale, AK. After opening a maker space in his library’s workroom, he sought out donations of used computers from the local Potter’s House Thrift Store. The 20 students in his maker club use screwdrivers to open up the computers and learn about the parts inside. In the future, they’ll connect the computer parts to microcontrollers such as a Raspberry Pi or Arduino.

To make sure the store yields something from the relationship, Johnson plans to invite a Potter House employee interested in a teaching career to be involved in a future maker club activity. “We need to make clear how their donations will benefit them and the overall community,” he says. “They also like recognition, whether it is a thank-you note or a social media post about their donation with pictures showing how it is being used by students.”

These collaborations can happen in unexpected ways, as did a partnership between a chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and a Detroit high school. The Detroit-based Louisa St. Clair chapter of the DAR—the oldest chapter in Michigan—has had a long-standing relationship with a classical and jazz radio station located at the Detroit School of Arts. Last year, DAR member Barbara Nickles was elected chapter librarian, a position that can involve supporting public libraries and schools. She was given a budget of $1,000, and the DAR chapter regent suggested it be used to buy books for students. The radio station manager connected Nickles with Detroit School of the Arts (DSA) librarian Karen Lemmons.

Lemmons, who depends on grants to add materials to her library, felt hesitant about working with the DAR at first, which in the past has had a reputation for excluding African Americans. The school’s enrollment is 99 percent African American, and many of the books purchased are either about or by African Americans. However, “We began to see this as a win-win partnership,” Lemmons says, and Nickles adds the organization’s mission makes working with the school a good fit.

“The key word is relationship,” Nickles says. ”Like all relationships, it takes work on both sides.”

Lemmons is now collaborating with social studies and world language teachers to put together a new “wish list” of books, as DSA student projects often involve the library.

School-wide buy in

The Center for Community School Partnerships at the University of California, Davis has created a tool kit specifically designed to help schools create collaborative relationships with community partners. It includes guidance on making decisions, creating a structure, and getting parents and students involved in the process. The National Center for Community Schools at the Children’s Aid Society in New York City and the Coalition for Community Schools also provide resources on working with community-based organizations.

As Nickles notes, partnerships take work to be sustained. In Connecticut, Nancy Shwartz, media specialist at Cos Cob School in Greenwich, wanted to turn part of the school’s media center into an innovation space, equipped with electronic building materials, a 3-D printer, and other tools, as part of a growing emphasis on digital learning. She applied for and received a grant from the Greenwich Alliance for Education, which raises money and holds fund-raisers for educational programs.

Alexandra Stevens, media specialist at nearby Greenwich High School, says even if the librarian is the main contact for the community partner, school administrators and classroom teachers also need to buy in to the relationship. Partners also need to carve out time to meet together and communicate regularly. Partnerships are strengthened when the librarian is not the only one trying to make things happen.“It is important to have diversity of ideas and talents engaged in the initiative,” Stevens says. “From a practical perspective, there is usually too much work involved for one person.”

Partnering challenges

Groups working with school libraries have also learned lessons about effective partnership. Since 2009, the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children (WePAC) has been recruiting volunteers to work in public schools that have no library staff. The organization currently has teams of volunteers working in 13 elementary schools, where they help children check out books, read to groups of students, and work individually with struggling readers.

WePAC director David Brown says changes in school leadership are a challenge to his organization, as is teacher turnover. “We have to restart our relationship,” he says. “They value what we do, but they have other priorities.”

More recently, the organization has focused on connecting with district-level officials who can help pave the way for partnerships at local schools, so WePAC can support broader early-literacy efforts there. It’s also helpful, Brown says, to learn what other community partners might already be working in a school or in the neighborhood, in part to avoid duplicating efforts, but also to identify potential volunteers who might be interested in working in the library.

Fein adds that community members or organizations working with disadvantaged schools “need to be prepared to assist in a variety of ways.” For example, after new shelves were ordered for WSA’s reading rooms, volunteers were needed to put the shelves together.

The UFPIA organized an August 24 work day where 16 volunteers built the shelves and labeled over 2,000 books. The partnership is continuing with the organization of a fifth grade library club, following the third grade club created last school year. The students are trained to be library helpers and meet to discuss their favorite books. Books in Spanish have also been ordered for parents to read to their children at home, and parents are allowed to check out titles at specified times.

The project has now led to an organized system for the school’s growing collection of books—giving a former librarian like Fein a great sense of accomplishment. “Before this year, books had no clear WSA ownership,” she says. “For the first time, the books will be identified as belonging to the library.”

Back at the Parker School in Chicago—serving pre–K through 12th grade—Rainbow’s collaboration with the school has also expanded beyond the first grade. When word spread to students in the upper grades that dogs were on campus, the high school students decided that they could use a little therapy during finals week. The student council wrote a proposal to the school administrators offering to donate council funds to Rainbow and have two dogs come to the library during finals week to provide some stress relief.

Coleman plans to teach another unit on helpers in the spring. Her students, she says, “are still talking, not only about the dogs coming to school, but how they help people—and how helping people is an important part of being a member of a community.”

Resources for Forming Partnerships

Partnerships between school libraries and community organizations are forged in a variety of ways—sometimes without much planning at all. But those who have experience say it’s wise to establish some agreements about issues such as use of facilities, regular communication, and roles and responsibilities for volunteers. A variety of resources and organizations are available to guide librarians and other educators who want to work in partnership with outside groups. Small projects often turn into ongoing collaborative arrangements, so consulting the experts can ensure more successful arrangements that benefit students. Verbal agreements might be fine for a one-time initiative, but as partnerships grow, a written contract or a memorandum of understanding (MOU) is sometimes preferred or even required by school districts. Some of these materials focus on community schools, where a wide variety of partners work with school leaders to meet students’ and families’ needs and support learning. But the knowledge provided can also help schools and school libraries that are just beginning to work with outside organizations. The Community School Partnerships Toolkit, created by The Center for Community School Partnerships at the University of California, Davis, is a detailed handbook that outlines various aspects of partnerships. Section 4 describes how to get started in collaborating with other organizations and displays different approaches to making decisions. The toolkit also includes sample MOUs and other documents that can be used as templates. The National Network of Partnership Schools was created by the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University. The center has published several handbooks on successful partnerships and practices. The site provides links to research as well as success stories and profiles of schools, districts, and organizations that have received partnership awards. Even if a partnership is focused around the school library and the librarian is most involved, it’s essential to have support and involvement from school administrators, librarians say. In Community and Family Engagement: Principals Share What Works, a report from the Coalition for Community Schools, almost 50 principals share what they’ve learned about collaborating with partners. The Coalition also provides a variety of other resources on building community schools and successful partnerships. A practical report from the Center for Cities & Schools at the University of California, Berkeley provides issues to consider when partners share facilities. The report also includes examples of schools and municipalities collaborating to create “joint use” libraries for both students and members of the public. The center also has several other publications about collaboration between public agencies and schools. Finally, many school districts now have departments focused on partnerships, which are a good place for librarians to start if they are interested in collaborating with outside organizations.
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Upul Priyankara Jayamaha

Hi, I'm the librarian of Presbyterian Girls' School in Colombo Sri Lanka where underprivileged students study and I have a dream to enhance the quality of the library. Please be kind enough to consider this request and select my school as a partner of your project and also make arrangement to post us your journal. Please let me know your idea on this request.

Posted : Apr 10, 2016 07:55