SLJ School Librarian of the Year Finalists Leverage ESSA in MA

Anita Cellucci and Laura Gardner share what they've learned from working on the Massachusetts School Library Association's ESSA committee.
Photo by Peter Pereira

Laura Gardner Photo: Peter Pereira

When the Massachusetts School Library Association (MSLA) developed its committee to ensure that students benefit from the changes to federal education law in the form of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the MSLA president, Anita Cellucci, and board member Laura Gardner were invited to participate. Also taking part were the executive director, several other board members, representation from the Massachusetts Library System, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), as well as John Chrastka, executive director of EveryLibrary. We have been working collaboratively since August 2016 to plan our strategy regarding ESSA. The process has been confusing at times, but ultimately very rewarding. We’ve quantified our goals for school libraries in our state, and gained a voice as a stakeholder in the process, in hopes of giving Massachusetts students equitable access to school libraries.

What ESSA says about school libraries

Photo by David Fox Photography

Anita Cellucci  Photo: David Fox Photography

ESSA has recognized school librarians as “specialized instructional support personnel.” ESSA requires that school districts conduct a “needs assessment” every three years prior to receiving grant and subgrant funds from the state. The assessment should cover access to personalized learning experiences. Such experiences can come via school libraries. Also, ESSA includes provisions that authorize (but do not require):
  • States to use funds to assist school districts in increasing access to personalized, rigorous learning experiences supported by technology, including adequate “access to school libraries” and providing school librarians and other school personnel with the skills to use technology effectively, including integration of technology, to improve student achievement.
  • States and school districts to use funds to support the instructional services provided by effective school library programs, to include funding for professional development, books, and up-to-date materials for high-needs students.
  • Local subgrants to be used to provide school librarians time to collaborate with teachers on comprehensive literacy instruction.
  • School districts to specify in their local plans how they will assist schools in developing effective school library programs, in order to improve students’ digital literacy skills and academic achievement.
  • K–12 school librarians to participate in grant activities

What did our committee do?

Our work began last August, with a formal appeal to be included as stakeholders on our state's ESSA Implementation Planning Committee sent to the commissioner of education at DESE. After our appeal was granted, we sent representatives to forums to share our recommendations and concerns. DESE held five public forums for interested stakeholders, which were spread out around the state. We were unsure what to expect. Most of us thought it would be a traditional hearing, where we’d get up to the microphone one by one. So our committee created talking points based on the sections of ESSA that DESE has chosen to focus on. Instead the hearings, dubbed “brain-warming sessions” by DESE, were a combination of individual and group brainstorming about how Massachusetts will implement the new federal mandate. The questions were very targeted to the indicators to differentiate schools— such as chronic absenteeism, access to the arts, well-rounded curriculums, and many more—and ways to change the accountability system. When Anita Cellucci and MSLA secretary, Robyn York, attended the first forum in Shrewsbury, MA, libraries were not yet on the radar. But a few weeks later, the Brockton, MA forum had six local school librarians in attendance, including Laura Gardner. We were able to share our goal of having a certified school librarian in every school as a state mandate. Despite the unexpected format, it was still helpful to have talking points with us when we attended the hearings, as well as sample social media posts. We are currently preparing policy recommendations to bring to the table for the implementation planning committee. You can see our work thus far on the Massachusetts School Library webpage for ESSA.

How effective school libraries and librarians support ESSA goals

When preparing talking points, look to research that supports the value of school librarians. For example, a link to higher test scores, and ties to overall student success or achievement.   Here are further points that school librarians can make:
  • Information literacy is an important component of the ELA Common Core standards; school librarians continue to have a role in supporting these standards. (In Massachusetts, school librarians have a large role in teaching the new digital literacy and computer science standards.)
  • School librarians provide, manage, and curate resources aligned to the school curriculum and specialized for students with disabilities and ELL students.
  • School librarians help reduce proficiency gaps by providing personalized learning environments, offering equitable access to resources, and ensuring a well-rounded education for every student.
  • Effective school libraries boost student achievement; effective school library programs staffed by school librarians make a difference.
  • School librarians provide school-wide professional development and family events that play vital roles in the school improvement process.
  • School librarians play an essential role in the development of the whole child by providing individualized resources, bibliotherapy, and a safe space for all students.
Our hope is to bring the understanding of school libraries to a new level through our continuous advocacy for effective libraries and school librarians—with a focus on how school libraries are the solution to the demands of ESSA. It's essential that all school librarians are aware of how their positions will facilitate implementing the legislation. Even if attending a forum is not possible for you, begin the conversation with your administrators, other librarians, and teachers. Advocacy is our most important tool.  

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