DCPS School Libraries: The Continuing Saga of the Inequitable and Underfunded

[Ed. Note: The following is by DC public schools advocate Peter MacPherson]

What I write here appears to be a success story: right now, the District of Columbia Public Schools has a credentialed librarian in almost every school. The system as a whole has more books that meet national standards in terms of currency than at any time in the past half century. It is using a digital card catalog system more effectively than ever before.

Yet, on the whole, DCPS still has the most mediocre school library program in the Washington region. There are pockets of school library excellence, particularly in wards 3 and 6, and the situation has improved since 2012, when then-chancellor Kaya Henderson came perilously close to eliminating librarians in most DCPS facilities. Sustained and aggressive advocacy led by the Capitol Hill Public School Parents Organization (CHPSPO) in Ward 6 ultimately saved librarians in the system, led to the hiring of many more, and compelled the chancellor to create a task force to make recommendations on how to improve DCPS libraries. Advocacy also provided resources to some school libraries.

But the effort put forward by DCPS to build quality libraries in all schools has been extremely uneven and grossly underfunded. In the past five years, for instance, DCPS has never really embraced its libraries, despite overwhelming support for them. For me, the presence of great libraries in the schools has never been more crucial, extending far beyond their role in inculcating in students a love of reading. Quite simply, the library is where the world resides in a school. It is the repository of virtually every aspect of 5,000 years of recorded human history—and current theories about life in the mists of prehistory. Libraries are where students can find the light switch that can illuminate the pitch black room the world often seems.

This is why the efforts to improve DCPS libraries documented here show that continued public engagement on this issue remains crucial: DCPS is not going to provide quality school libraries on its own. They will have to be demanded of the school system.

The romance and power of school libraries has never been apparent during the school reform era in DC. Libraries need two key elements to succeed: books and librarians. At one time, the majority of DCPS campuses had little or none of either. While a DCPS school with enrollment of 300 students today gets one librarian, a high school of 1,800, like Wilson High, also gets money from DCPS for only one full-time librarian.

(To be sure, DCPS is hardly unique in its lack of support for libraries: no DC charter school is compelled to even have a school library—and some as a result do not.)

DCPS’s grudging support for its libraries has always been curious given a very simple maxim: public leaders are never punished by stakeholders for giving them what they want. DCPS’s ambivalence is curious also because school libraries can be an enormous boon to literacy-development efforts. For the entire education reform period, DCPS has struggled to bridge an enormous achievement gap existing between students from families of means and those without means. In the past 50 years there have been more than 60 studies showing that students attending schools with well-stocked libraries staffed by a credentialed librarian do consistently better academically and have higher standardized test scores. The benefit is even more pronounced for poor children, as Dr. Stephen Krashen, an emeritus professor of education at the University of Southern California, discovered in his research on the subject. (References are at the end.)

Despite clear public support and demonstrable benefit, DCPS libraries are making what at best can be called halting progress. A robust future for them is hardly guaranteed. DCPS library facilities collectively have a deficit of 350,000 volumes. That figure is derived by comparing what each school currently has in its collection with professional norms, developed by the American Association of School Librarians, that say each school library should have 20 volumes per student with an average publication date of no more than 10 years back.

But DCPS libraries remain weak where they have always been weak: in elementary schools with poor students and education campuses lacking parent organizations able to raise money. In spite of advocacy efforts over the past five years, the good libraries in DCPS elementary schools remain the achievement of parents who have raised money for books and other materials. The school system has left the status of the have-not libraries largely unchanged.

Materials I obtained through FOIA last summer make these divides especially clear: Raymond Education Campus has 6.7 books per student. Burroughs EC has around 8 books per student. Stanton Elementary in Ward 7 has 1.55 volumes per student, even after undergoing a $36 million renovation. The injury to students at education campuses with poor libraries is especially profound. These schools go from pre-K through 8th grade. A student who spends his entire primary and middle school years at an education campus will enter high school without ever having the widely known academic and developmental benefits of a quality library.

Such poor resource allocation is nothing new, although there have been brighter moments. Between 2003 and 2007 a $6 million federal grant, matched by $6 million from DCPS, infused elementary school libraries with books, paint, carpeting, lighting and technology. The School Libraries Project, an initiative of the Capitol Hill Community Foundation, raised funds to remodel many school libraries in Ward 6 and bolster their collections. In 2005 automaker Toyota gave a three-year, $1.3 million grant used to bolster library collections in the District’s southeast quadrant. The Laura Bush Foundation gave two separate $400,000 grants to train a coterie of 16 to become librarians in DCPS. Former DCPS Superintendent Dr. Clifford Janey put the threshold for funding a full-time librarian at an enrollment of 251 students. With fewer students, a school would receive a part-time librarian.

The arrival of mayoral control of the schools began a period of atrophy for DCPS libraries. The threshold of DCPS funding for a full-time librarian position went up, requiring a school to have an enrollment of 300 or more. The DCPS library director was gone by the time Michelle Rhee became chancellor in 2007, with the position remaining unfilled until 2010. This is when Patricia Brown, a talented and energetic librarian who had been working at Deal Middle School, became manager of DCPS library media services. She had been trained as a librarian through one of the grants given to DCPS by the Laura Bush foundation.

During her 4 years at central office, Brown was a one-woman show. She had a small budget and no money to direct to schools to improve their library program. A Freedom of Information Act request I made in 2012 showed that much of the funding for the DCPS library program instead was spent on other things. For instance, the DCPS Office of Community and Family Engagement got an $80,000 strategic plan paid for with funds originally intended for the library program. Library funds were also used to pay for testing materials and technology for the central office. At the same time, schools needed even basic resources like magazine subscriptions. If a school needed additional library shelving, Brown went to various government warehouses searching for shelving. She received many grants for DCPS libraries, including one that enabled the existing collections to be entered into Destiny, the digital card catalog the school system uses today.

Yet DCPS libraries continued to suffer. Many schools did not have even a librarian, and the collections at many schools had not seen new materials in years, sometimes decades. Then, Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee began an expansive school modernization program. Yet putting a new library collection in schools as part of modernization did not happen. Wilson High School did not receive a new collection as part of its renovation. Neither did Anacostia, H.D. Woodson, Eastern or School Without Walls high schools. Neither did Deal, Hardy and Sousa middle schools. In fact, no DCPS school until 2013 received an opening-day collection as part of its modernization.

After librarians had been secured in DCPS and advocacy efforts shifted toward getting more books and other materials into media centers, DCPS began to blame the city’s chief financial officer for the dearth of materials in the libraries. Former city CFO Natwar Gandhi had prohibited the use of capital funds (used for school modernizations) for items like opening-day collections for school libraries. Gandhi’s argument–embraced by his successor Jeffrey DeWitt–was that accounting rules forbid this use of capital dollars.

Adding to the problem, DCPS did not make any effort to budget money from operating funds to get books into school libraries. Not a dollar was budgeted in FY13, FY14 or FY15. Anacostia High School opened in August 2012 without a single volume in its renovated library–and remained that way for an entire academic year. What books the school had were lost during the modernization process. When the brand-new H.D. Woodson High School opened, it did so with around 400 titles in its library. Many of its books had been lost as well, including several thousand volumes donated by a DCPS central office staff member. Some of Eastern High School’s books were lost prior to its 2011 reopening–and the remaining titles had an average publication date of 1982. Woodson had an enrollment of 700 at the time, which meant the library had 1.75 volumes per student. But 20 volumes per student is a nationally accepted professional norm.

By the summer of 2013, DCPS was getting ready to open newly constructed Dunbar High as well as a lavishly renovated Cardozo High School. Neither had a library with a single volume. I and other school advocates seized upon a controversial tactic to compel the city to address the situation. Dunbar High has a long and storied history, with key figures in the city’s political class–Eleanor Holmes Norton and Vincent Gray among them–having attended the school. Given that historic character, the national press was expected to attend Dunbar’s August 2013 ribbon-cutting, at which advocates pointed out that the school lacked even a single volume by its namesake, poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar.

The gambit worked: DCPS soon miraculously found an extra $10 million in its budget, of which $3.4 million was used to buy opening-day collections for most of its modernized high schools (though, oddly, not for its premier high school, School Without Walls). In addition, Kramer and Eliot-Hine middle schools received several thousand volumes, and Jefferson Middle School got more than 10,000 books. Earlier that summer, Kramer’s library contained only aging encyclopedias–and no books.

All other DCPS schools received around 100 volumes for their libraries. The remainder of the $10 million was used to resource music programs and buy technology for schools.

Before this big book purchase, DCPS libraries had 676,112 volumes. The $3.4 million bought an additional 135,013 books.

Despite that infusion of new books, the DCPS library collection had an average publication date of 1997.

By mid-2013, DCPS senior leadership, feeling the sting of ongoing negative publicity about its school libraries, decided to bolster the library staff at central office. Although Patricia Brown had been serving as manager of library media services, Chancellor Henderson created a new position, director of library media programs. Another staff position, below the one Brown held, was also created. This individual was to be responsible for maintaining the digital card catalog among other administrative duties. Brown applied for the new position of director and recruited a fellow University of Maryland alum, Jennifer Boudrye, to interview for the newly created administrative position below the position Brown occupied.

But Brown’s position in DCPS was deteriorating by the fall of 2013. Brown told me she believed Henderson blamed her for unleashing a DCPS library advocacy campaign–although Brown herself was never directing any library advocacy.

In any case, Brown was interviewed for the new director’s position. The hiring panel tasked with assessing the candidates overwhelmingly recommended Brown.

But the job went to Boudrye.

In February 2014, minutes after Boudrye’s selection was announced, Brown took the elevator down to the parking garage of the 1200 First Street NE headquarters of DCPS. She got in her car and exited the building. The next day, a Saturday, she came into work and cleaned out her desk. When Brown left the building that day, she simply never returned.

Today Brown is a middle school librarian in the Fairfax County Public Schools.

With a level of support Brown had never received from the chancellor, Boudrye moved quickly to begin hiring librarians. There were a lot of positions to fill, and to her credit, Boudrye was successful. Filling DCPS librarian positions has always been difficult. DCPS has long had a reputation as being a less than ideal employer for librarians. DCPS librarians have been used for test administration, excessive lunch duty, and excessive time as substitute teachers, all of which violated their contracts.

It didn’t help that the school system’s reputation for being resource-starved was widely known, as was its lack of fidelity to the terms pertaining to librarians in its collective bargaining agreement with the Washington Teachers Union. The contract prohibited librarians for being used in the ways DCPS chose. The contract also specified that DCPS was to maintain the libraries. Obviously neither requirement was honored by DCPS with any consistency.

In a meeting with librarians in spring 2014, Boudrye, her direct superior David Rose, and Brian Pick, the chief of curriculum and instruction, made a great effort to convey that a new era was starting for librarians in DCPS. Representations were made to the librarians that resources would be available for bolstering collections and updating technology in the libraries. A trip to an upcoming American Library Association meeting was raffled off.

But 2014 ended with none of those promises realized.

In March 2015, the DC Council’s Committee on Education held its annual agency performance hearing. This hearing involves all District agencies under the committee’s purview, including DCPS, the charter school board, the public libraries, the deputy mayor education and the Office of the State Superintendent for Education. During that hearing, councilmen David Grosso and Charles Allen both asked about DCPS libraries. Chancellor Henderson was defensive on the subject, noting that she was not responsible for making them bad. Behind the scenes, she had been indicating to council staff that there would not be significant funding for the libraries in the FY16 DCPS budget. Henderson also indicated that the DC Public Education Fund, the philanthropic vehicle for DCPS, had a major fundraising drive underway for the libraries.

After reopening Anacostia High School in August 2012 with no books in its library, the chancellor began making more frequent references to using philanthropy to adequately provision DCPS libraries. In fact, Henderson emailed me in 2013 saying that a donor was on the verge of giving a million books to DCPS libraries. That gift would cost around $23 million. After I made inquiries but found no evidence such a gift was imminent, I confronted the chancellor by email on February 5, 2013 and asked her to identify the donor. The chancellor refused.

No million book donation has ever been made to DCPS.

Publicly, the DC Public Education Fund had an ambitious fund-raising program for DCPS libraries. On its website (but since removed and available here), the fund articulated ambitious goals for this campaign. The chancellor said she wanted to buy a million new library books. Lots of computers and eReaders would be bought for the libraries as well as other technologies like SmartBoards. Special collections would be positioned at certain schools, a music collection at the Duke Ellington School for the Arts, one devoted to African-American history and culture at Cardozo Education Campus and another for engineering and architecture at Phelps high school. The goal was to raise $15 million for the school libraries.

The fund ultimately raised no money for the libraries and abandoned the effort in 2016.

In mid-2014, I obtained part of an analysis of the state of DCPS’s library collection. The school system asked all the vendors who had supplied the books from the previous summer’s $3.4 million book buy to analyze the collections in order to give a before and after snapshot. DCPS also wanted to know what the likely cost would be for it to bring all the library collections to national professional norms. Having obtained only part of the analysis (available here and here), I filed a FOIA request for the rest. But DCPS denied the request, citing a commercial exemption, as businesses had helped generate the analyses.

I gave what I had obtained to Michael Chandler, an education reporter with the Washington Post. The piece she wrote ran on March 9, 2015, titled “Unequal shelves in DC School libraries benefit wealthier students,” outlined wild inequities across the city in library resources, with most schools determined to have inadequate libraries.

Chancellor Henderson reacted almost immediately. Within days, the FY16 DCPS budget contained $1.2 million for library collection development. Every school, based on enrollment and number of at-risk students, would get between $20 and $25 per student to buy new books. Moreover, DCPS has placed opening-day collections in newly modernized high schools and at Brookland Middle. A new library collection will go into the Ellington School of the Arts when it is completed this summer. The school has operated for years without a library, though this academic year it finally has a librarian.

The next fiscal year began on October 1, 2015. After the collection development money was appropriated, librarians were expected to order lists by early June. Some who met the deadline didn’t begin receiving books until after January 1, 2016. Many schools received no books until just a few weeks before the end of the academic year in June 2016—nearly a year after being ordered. As a result, a significant percentage of DCPS students at schools with poor library collections did not benefit from new library books at all last school year.

In spring 2016, Henderson again included funding for FY 17 library collection development–though at $1 million, it represented a slight reduction from the FY16 budget. Librarians were again asked to generate lists of materials they wanted. But there was a new dynamic afoot: DCPS continued to grow the library staff in central office who, working with curriculum specialists, determined what would be purchased initially in October. An emphasis was placed on materials that aligned to the new Common Core standards.

And the number of periodical subscriptions schools received were cut. A high school used to get 20 different publications. That number is now 11. By comparison, a high school library in Arlington’s public schools gets around 35 different periodicals.

But DCPS will no longer be doing any purchasing. The school system entered into a partnership with DC Public Libraries, with the latter assuming responsibility for book purchasing. DCPS librarians were prohibited from dealing with library vendors directly.

Now that it is nearly February 2017, those materials have only now begun arriving in the schools. And what input school librarians will have in how the remaining collection development money is spent remains uncertain. But given that no additional orders have been placed, whatever has already been received is likely to be all the new material that students see in their school library this academic year.

In addition to inadequately appropriating money for its libraries, DCPS has abandoned the pretense that our schools will have adequate library collection through the beneficence of the rich. The 350,000 volumes the school libraries need to bring them up to national standards would cost around $7 million. Absent private money, the goal can only be reached with public funds, and DCPS has made no commitment to fulfill this goal. At $20 a book, $1 million buys 49,000 titles. As it is, DCPS libraries remain thick with books that need to be culled because of condition and age, among other factors. A school of 400 gets around 400 volumes using this formula. Because of necessary culling, an infusion of 400 volumes does not have a dramatic impact on collection. Without more money, poor schools will continue to have mediocre libraries, and students attending schools with affluent parents will continue to get good libraries.

It appears that the work ahead is to insist that the mayor and council require DCPS to spend far more than 1% of its $1 billion budget to give all students equitable library resources.



Click to access protecting_students.pdf



Anyone desiring a copy of the DCPS library collection analysis for a particular school can contact me by email: pmacpher@aol.com

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