No Response: DC School Libraries

[Below is an email sent to DC Council chair Phil Mendelson on June 23 regarding DCPS libraries. The writer, long-time DCPS libraries advocate Peter MacPherson, got no response from the chairman. In spring, DCPS revealed that 37 schools would not have full-time librarians in SY21-22, with the number having no librarian at all increased from last year (for SY 21-22, 26 schools will have no librarian at all, or 70% of the 37). Of those 37 schools, 46% are in wards 7 and 8. This closely tracks last year’s DCPS librarian inequity, when 50% of schools without a full-time librarian were in wards 7 and 8. All of this comes as DCPS has allowed librarians to be optional, giving principals the ability to divert those funds for other uses in the face of (repeated and inequitable) budget shortfalls. On July 1, Mendelson circulated a report on budget recommendations, citing the librarian shortfall in schools east of the Anacostia and noting that those schools have spent “these funds on things they determine they need more for their community, or would be more helpful for their community, such as hiring an additional IEP coordinator or reading specialist.” (Clearly, a sense of irony–or the grotesque–isn’t a prerequisite for elected office.) The sad reality remains that DC is flush with money to fund the approximately $3.5 million needed to have FT librarians in all DCPS schools–as recommended in a 2012 task force report. Instead, money is going toward a DCPS summer reading app whose contract (and efficacy) remain publicly obscured; high-dosage tutoring overseen by school privatizers likely using low-wage, short-term labor; and plans for millions in federal funds that DCPS literally gave its families 48 hours to give feedback on (in direct contradiction of federal guidelines that called on state education agencies to work with the public in formulating those plans). A full 16 days before DCPS got around to soliciting feedback on its plans for its federal funds, our state education agency, OSSE, had already submitted its (recently approved) plan to the federal government. (See it here.) Neither OSSE’s nor DCPS’s plans contain anything about the importance of DC school libraries and librarians.]


From: Peter MacPherson Sent: Wednesday, June 23, 2021 10:39 AM
Subject: A Communication on School Libraries

Chairman Mendelson:

Wilson High School is the largest in the city by enrollment. When students return to the building in August after a prolonged absence forced on everyone by the pandemic, they will be returning to a school that will have less than the one they vacated in March of last year. The largest middle school by enrollment is Alice Deal, which is essentially across the street from Wilson High. Its students will also have less than the school they left. Unless you act neither of these campuses will have a librarian. They will be among 37 DCPS facilities in no longer having a librarian. The school system is not facing a fiscal emergency. Combined with city resources, the president of the United States and the Congress ensured that vast sums be surged into public education with the goal of ensuring that students and their schools did not suffer from the economic dislocations caused by the pandemic. Between the municipal budget and federal largesse there is more than enough funding available for every school in DCPS to have a full-time librarian.

The fact that librarians are being cut is purely a function of the long-standing ambivalence that DCPS has towards school libraries and librarians. In 2012 former Chancellor Kaya Henderson attempted a purge of the system’s librarians. She gave principals of schools with over 300 enrollment the ability to use the funding for the librarian for other purposes. I helped lead a city-effort to forestall Henderson’s plan. You may recall the protests that took place in front of the Wilson Building and DCPS headquarters on First Street. The efforts garnered a lot of sustained media attention, and, by the fall, the chancellor had modestly capitulated. She established a school libraries task force charged with developing about them and their staffing. The president of the American Library Association served on this group, as did the associate dean of the University of Maryland College of Information Science, principals, school librarians and parents.

The task force report is an impressive document though it initially had little effect on how the chancellor viewed library staffing. Her initial FY14 budget was little changed relative to the flexibility she gave principals. It was David Catania, the first chairman of the re-established council education committee, who restored the librarian funding. After that the chancellor relented and in subsequent year principals could no longer petition away their librarians. Having a librarian was required.

Because of sustained advocacy and a significant piece in the Washington Post in 2015 which focused on the terrible inequities that exist between schools relative to library materials, DCPS began budgeting $1 million yearly to purchase new library books. And, as schools have been modernized, DCPS has been purchasing opening-day collections for these facilities.

Between donations and what the city has purchased DCPS campuses now have a total of 938,000 volumes, worth nearly $16 million. DCPS now has a few really good libraries and a significant number that are mediocre because of the dearth of materials. Inadequate or absent technology is a problem in many school libraries. A few years ago, the DC Public Education Fund, the philanthropic arm of DCPS, had put out an impressive proposal to transform all the school libraries. The cost was $14.1 million. The fund never raised a single penny for this effort. In my view the whole thing was nothing more than insulation designed to give the impression that DCPS was committed to its libraries without having to spend any of its own resources.

DCPS library-related efforts have always been ambivalent, the proof being years of either no or inadequate funding, the periodic efforts to cull librarians from its personnel ranks and poor understanding on the part of many principals in how to utilize these professionals. In the past five years four individuals have run the library program at central office. Like so many aspects of DCPS churn in this area has been the norm.

So many of local school leaders in DCPS have only worked in the District and have never seen what a highly functioning library program looks like. DCPS has invested in its libraries—inadequately—but the sum is sufficient to warrant guarding against those resources being squandered.

Last year during council budget hearings, deputy chancellor Amy Maisterra answered a question you had initially put to the chancellor about school libraries. She said that schools that petition not to have a librarian must demonstrate that they have a plan to deliver library services in the absence of a librarian. I found the answer to be completely grotesque. Her answer conflated what a credentialed full-time librarian does on an average day in providing library services with some staff member opening the library once a week to check out books. Maisterra’s answer is not particularly surprising. I’ve found many DCPS central office staff members to be unfamiliar with the extensive body of academic research on the efficacy of school libraries and librarians.

There’s more than 50 years of research that consistently shows students who attend schools with credentialed librarians and well-stocked libraries perform better academically. And the costs of that ignorance are plain to see. After 14 years of the school system being run by a consistent cadre of education reformers committed to pursuing variations of the same strategies, what the city now has is stasis. DCPS does not have a track record of doing any kind of program particularly well. In the case of the libraries, it is well known what they need to be effective. DCPS has just never committed to doing them well. Just like foreign languages have not been done well and many other core school system functions.

For 14 years I have heard council members and staff argue that the council is not the school board. When the council voted to eliminate the latter it de facto gave itself the oversight of education. It is now the school board despite a demonstrated squeamishness at conducting real oversight. I think it should be telling to the council how many stakeholders signed up to testify before the council on education matters. DCPS has consistently shown itself to be operated in a manner familiar to anyone who has read Oliver Twist: Accept what is given to you and do not protest.

What this strategy has enabled is for all the inequity we see in the school system to take root. You need to ensure that a full-time librarian is funded for every school in DCPS in the FY22 budget. The presence of credentialed librarians in the schools needs to be required. The development of standards for school libraries needs to be mandated and, once complete, required of DCPS. Stakeholders should not be required to continually refight battles they had already won.

Like David Catania understood in 2013 DCPS is not going to fix its own misjudgments. You must intercede to save the school librarians who have been excessed. Otherwise, when they exit their schools on Friday [June 25] a huge void will metaphorically develop in those buildings. School librarians are frequently among the most beloved staff members in a school building. Pamela Gardner, the librarian at Wilson High, has been there for 17 years. A few years ago, she was the recipient of a Rubenstein Award, which recognizes excellence in teaching and is awarded at an annual ceremony by DCPS. In 2018 Gardner was named Wilson’s teacher of the year. She has been the only librarian at a school with nearly 2,000 students. School systems in the surrounding jurisdictions frequently have two or three librarians and an aide serving such a large number of students. The elimination of the librarians in such a large number of schools will be felt most profoundly by poor children who live in book deserts. They will be the losers.

You are going to have to rectify this situation.


Peter MacPherson

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