Karina Quilantan-Garza: Local Hero | 2023 School Librarian of the Year Finalist

Modernizing the library and creating a collection to match her community's needs has been key for Quilantan-Garza at Jaime Escalante Middle School in Pharr, TX, where most students are predominantly Spanish-speaking.

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Image of Karina Quilantan-Garza, Library Media Specialist  with students
Karina Quilantan-Garza, Library Media Specialist, Jaime Escalante Middle School, Pharr, TX
Photos by Marco Vasquez/Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD


Karina Quilantan-Garza has been a Texas educator for 13 years. When she began her career as an English language arts teacher, there was always something missing from her middle schools—a library.

In her first school, the library was shut down after a hurricane and never reopened. Her second school had an open library, but no librarian to run it. In her last year in that district, the school hired a part-time librarian. Quilantan-Garza quickly made up for lost time. She brought her students to the library as often as she could, but the limited once-a-week visits weren’t nearly enough to satisfy her, or her students’, interest.

“It was really sad,” Quilantan-Garza says. “They wanted to use it but didn’t have the access.”

Quilantan-Garza peppered the new librarian with questions about how to expand services. Her passion was evident. “I’d have these discussions with the librarian, and she would tell me, ‘You’d be awesome at this job.’ ”

Quilantan-Garza eventually earned her master’s in library science, and for the last eight years she has been the library media specialist at Jaime Escalante Middle School in Pharr, TX. In that time, she has created a library that is always welcoming to students and teachers alike.

It hasn’t been easy. With no funds for technology and a book budget of only $1,200 a year for 569 students, there is not nearly enough to cover everything she wants to offer her kids, the vast majority of whom are eligible for free and reduced lunch. But those challenges haven’t stopped her from turning her 1,200-square-foot library into the heart of her campus.

Modernizing the library and creating a collection to match the needs of her community has been a priority for Quilantan-Garza since she arrived at Jaime Escalante, which sits barely 20 minutes from the Mexican border in the tri-city district of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD. Most of its students come from Mexico and are predominantly Spanish-speaking, yet when she got there, “our Spanish collection was one shelf,” Quilantan-Garza says.

“I’ve lived here my entire life,” adds Quilantan-Garza, who was born and raised nearby in the Rio Grande Valley. “I know the culture and what the kids need—their academic needs and their social needs. Kids are coming with little to no educational background and starting from scratch. They struggle in their native language and English. It can be pretty challenging.”

It didn’t take long for her to start applying for grants to create a more welcoming and representative library. In 2017, she received a $7,000 Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries grant, and in 2020 received $4,000 from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation. Now, the library is stocked with fiction and nonfiction in Spanish as well as bilingual books for students to help develop their fluency. That selection has resulted in more kids enthusiastic about reading than ever before.

Image of Karina Quilantan-Garza, Library Media Specialist portrait

“The kids are always excited to go to the library,” says Salvador Andrade, a social studies teacher at Jaime Escalante. “There hasn’t been another year where I’ve seen so many non English-speaking students want to go to check out a book because of the selection that’s available for them.”

In addition to grants and the support of administrators and teachers, Quilantan-Garza has found other creative ways to augment her library’s offerings. One that’s made a big impact is her student library ambassador program. With no adult aide to help her, Quilantan-Garza says that during her first year she was nearly ready to quit with the demands of running a library that went beyond her training.

“But I went back to an article I read when I was in grad school about student helpers and thought, that’s a great idea.”

The ambassador program is serious business. Students from sixth to eighth grade formally apply, filling out an application, getting references, and going through an interview. If they are selected, Quilantan-Garza spends six weeks training them on all aspects of running the library, from shelving and inter-
library loans to answering the phone.

Students love the opportunity to take on a real leadership role, and the program allows Quilantan-Garza to keep the library open while she’s teaching lessons. Over the years, students have helped genrefy the library. They’ve nearly run it on their own a few times, once when Quilantan-Garza was out with bronchitis, and over another stretch when she was on parental leave.

Beyond her passion for promoting literacy and providing a strong print collection, Quilantan-Garza’s role as the media specialist has also led her to become a technology leader.

Over the years, she has earned her digital certifications from Apple, Google, and Microsoft for Education. EdTech magazine named her one of its 30 K–12 IT Influencers, recognizing her for her work creating online resources for her English- and Spanish-speaking students. She also shares her knowledge and resources, along with ideas for bringing everything from manga to video games into the library, over Twitter and Instagram under her popular handle @cuethelibrarian. Thanks to her expertise and her innovative use of apps, websites, games, badges, and other tech tools, she was instrumental in leading the school in online learning when the pandemic struck, including helping teachers set up their online classrooms through weekly virtual professional development sessions and putting out tutorials for students and families over social media.

For all of her work, she was named 2022 Librarian of the Year by the Texas Library Association.

“She has worked diligently to provide the best learning environment for her students year after year,” wrote Jaime Escalante assistant principal Isaac Leal in Quilantan-Garza’s nomination letter. “Because of her work ethic and foresight, her pupils thrive in both standardized tests as well as the social-emotional component of being a student.”

Currently, Quilantan-Garza is pursuing her doctoral degree in Instructional Systems Design and Technology at Sam Houston State University. She plans to continue bringing new educational tools into the library and classroom, and finding ways to share her love of technology with educators in Texas and around the country.

“I keep learning so I can make sure my staff is ahead of the game,” Quilantan-Garza says. “I don’t want to gatekeep. I want to share with as many people as possible.”


Andrew Bauld is a freelance writer covering education.

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