School librarians a rare find in California public schools

By  | EdSource

Shannon Englebrecht, who works for the San Francisco Unified School District, is poised to become one of a rare breed in California when her hours are increased next year: a full-time public school librarian.

California employed 804 school librarians in 2012-13, which translates to one certified school librarian for every 7,784 students in 2012-13, according to data from the California Department of Education. That is the lowest per-student ratio of any state in the country. The national average in the fall of 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, was one school librarian for every 1,022 students, according to The National Center for Education Statistics.

The lack of certified librarians has led to a decrease in student access to books, a decline in student research skills and the loss of an important resource for teachers, said Janice See-Gilmore, president of the California School Library Association.

“It’s actually pretty dreadful,” See-Gilmore said. “In 1999 we had 1,300 teacher librarians. We’re just going in the wrong direction.”

There are fewer school librarians in California today than there were in 1988. (Note: Data for years 1989-1997, 1999 and 2009 is approximate.) Sources: California Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics
(Click to enlarge.) There are fewer school librarians in California today than there were in 1988. (Note: Data for years 1989-1997, 1999 and 2009 is approximate.) Sources: California Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics

State funding for school libraries has never been steady. Prior to 1994, there was no money specifically set aside for them. Between 1994 and 2009, various statewide initiatives – from a check-off on income tax forms to a block grant program for districts – funneled vastly varying amounts of money to public school libraries. Those amounts ranged from $266,000 to $158.5 million annually.

Beginning in 2009, the funding set aside for libraries became “flexible,” meaning it could be spent on other priorities as districts scrambled to slash their budgets during the recession. Many districts now employ only one teacher librarian who oversees all the libraries in the district.

Cities that have managed to avoid that fate have had to look for money closer to home. San Francisco residents voted in 2004 to set aside money from the city’s general fund that would support “extras” like sports, art and school libraries, among other programs, for public school students. See sidebar. 

As tax revenues returned to pre-recession levels this year, the fund has grown significantly, allowing public schools like the one where Englebrecht works – Charles Drew College Preparatory Academy – to increase the number of hours their librarians spend on campus.
On a recent afternoon in her sunny library at Charles Drew, Englebrecht shifted some chapter books around on a shelf, trying to make it look full. Short, easy-to-read chapter books are exactly the type she knows her young students, who live in a low-income neighborhood of San Francisco, need more of.

Englebrecht gets an annual budget to buy new books and replace dog-eared or out- of-date ones. Since Charles Drew hasn’t had a full-time librarian dedicated to curating the collection for a while, Englebrecht said there’s work to be done. In addition to more chapter-books for early readers, she’d like her 6,000-book collection to include more graphic novels for children who aren’t ready for large blocks of text and more books about sports and other topics that tend to interest boys.

“I’m looking for empowering, enabling books about African-American children,” said Englebrecht, whose school population is 80 percent black. “Then (for books about) Latino kids. They also deserve to see themselves in the collection.”

Englebrecht also takes her teacher-support role seriously. She’s created a teacher resource library in a storage room off the main library. Teachers can find collections of books on subjects they teach, lesson plans and curriculum reference materials.

“Having a librarian has definitely directly benefited me as a teacher,” said Englebrecht’s colleague, Laura Todorow.

Todorow, who teaches 3rd grade at Charles Drew, said the library contributes to a climate of learning and valuing books. Her students have had a chance to practice selecting and caring for books, have learned how to use a book catalogue and are more engaged in silent reading in class this year, Todorow said.

May 2014
Two 3rd grade boys look through chapter books about African American children in the library at Charles Drew College Preparatory Academy, a public elementary school in San Francisco. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

“I feel a school librarian is a non-negotiable necessity in any school,” she said.

Across the San Francisco Bay in Oakland, district librarian Ann Mayo Gallagher worries that teachers in her district might not know what benefits a school librarian could bring. Of the 75 school libraries in Oakland public schools, 23 are closed, 10 are run by volunteers and another 23 are run by part-time clerks. Nineteen are staffed by professional librarians, Mayo Gallagher said, but only one of those is paid by the district. The others are paid by individual schools, usually with money raised by the PTA.

And not even the open libraries are open all the time, Mayo Gallagher said. Of the libraries that are open, about half are open less than 20 hours a week.

“Currently (in Oakland), it’s possible to enter kindergarten and graduate high school never having gone to a school that has a library,” Mayo Gallagher said.

Many districts in the state face issues like those in Oakland. About half of the 600 elementary and middle school libraries in Los Angeles public schools are closed, according to a story in The Los Angeles Times. Forty of San Diego Unified’s 180 school libraries have been closed since budget cuts in 2008, according to a story in The School Library Journal. And the problem has spread beyond large urban districts, said See-Gilmore with the California School Library Association. She is the only teacher librarian in her suburban district of La Mesa Spring Valley, east of San Diego.

California has more students per school librarian than any state in the country. (Note: Data for years 1989-1997, 1999 and 2009 is approximate.) Sources: California Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics
(Click to enlarge.) California has more students per school librarian than any state in the country. (Note: Data for years 1989-1997, 1999 and 2009 is approximate.) Sources: California Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics

A few school districts in the state, like Palo Alto Unified, have managed to use their wealthy, local tax base to support public school libraries for years. Despite the difference in demographics, teachers in Palo Alto cited many of the same benefits of having full-time librarians as their San Francisco counterparts.

“The librarian is an amazing resource,” said Beth Maxwell, a fifth-grade teacher at Addison Elementary School in Palo Alto. “Teachers can do a lot, but when you’ve got someone who knows the kids and who can help instill the love of learning and reading, it makes a difference.”

Maxwell said the librarian at her school, Patricia Ohanian, works closely with teachers to support whatever they are working on in their classrooms. In addition to providing appropriate books and resources to match the content of classroom lessons, Maxwell said librarians teach students skills they need to finish their classroom work. During a recent research project on famous Americans, for example, Ohanian taught students how to write a bibliography during their weekly library visit.

Ohanian has been a teacher librarian for nearly 20 years and she’s been at Addison for the past six years. In addition to supporting teachers, Ohanian said she spends time keeping the school’s 16,680-book collection up to date and high quality, hosting special events like visiting authors, answering parents’ questions about their kids’ reading and leading school-wide literacy initiatives.

As Maxwell’s students took their seats in the library recently, Ohanian reminded them to get started on their opening activity for poetry month: Picking poems they liked from the collection of books on each table and copying them down so they would have several to pick from for “Poem in My Pocket Day.” Next, she led the class in reading out loud from a half dozen poems posted on the walls.

boy with iPad, May 2014
San Francisco 3rd grader Kalique Cheeves zooms in on a iPad he’s learned to use thanks to a grant written by his school librarian. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

“My curriculum is based on Common Core standards,” Ohanian said later, referring to the English language arts and math standards that most states have adopted. “I take different themes of literature and then I weave in whatever I can.”

For school districts without the resources or community support found in Palo Alto, the new Local Control Funding Formula might be an option for better funding school libraries and hiring more librarians.
Districts are still developing their plans for how to spend the money they will receive under the formula and it’s unclear if libraries and librarians will rise to the top of their priority lists.

Oakland has not yet published a draft of its plan. San Jose’s East Side Union, one of the districts EdSource is following closely this year, will be increasing the number of librarians in the district in response to community feedback. West Contra Costa is taking a different tack. Under the new formula, West Contra Costa plans to buy books and other library materials, but makes no mention of hiring additional librarians.
For districts that don’t choose to hire more librarians under the new funding formula, a bill currently before the state Assembly Appropriations Committee, AB 1955, might provide them with extra funding for three school years to hire a school nurse, a school psychologist and a school librarian. Districts would need to have at least 55 percent of their student population classified as low-income to qualify for the funding.

April 2014
Librarian Patricia Ohanian reviews personification with fifth grade students at Addison Elementary School in Palo Alto. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

Back in Addison’s library, 5th grader Simrun Rao had a mission. She’d just read a book called “Blue Jasmine,” about an Indian girl who immigrated to the United States and had to build a new life for herself. Simrun, who is Indian-American, wanted her friend to read the book too, so she asked Ohanian for the name of the author. Hearing “Kashmira Sheth,” the two girls scurried off to the “S” area of the fiction section.
Ohanian was glad to know that Simrun had liked “Blue Jasmine” so much, as she had recommended it. Like Englebrecht, Ohanian said it is critical for students to see themselves in the books they read and she has chosen the books in her collection accordingly. Her familiarity with her collection is the trait her students say they value most.

“If you tell her what type of book you like, she’ll help you out,” said fifth-grader Samantha Feldmeier, who visited the library with her class after Maxwell’s class had finished.

“She doesn’t have to look it up on the computer,” Emily Crowley​, also in fifth grade, added with a bit of awe in her voice. “She just knows.”