Chicago needs more school librarians

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A new library at Daniel R. Cameron Elementary School in Chicago was unveiled with help from Target Corporation and The Heart of America Foundation.

I recall reading national headlines in 2013 regarding massive closures in Chicago Public Schools. Though deemed drastic by many, the underlying principle was that the changes were designed to provide students with new resources needed for a quality education. One of the selling points was that closures would give Chicago Public Schools the resources to provide ample access to school libraries and librarians.


Proponents said the closures would address the needs of the more than 87 percent of CPS students that come from low-income families. The assumption was that all students would have equal access to educational resources that could help them better their lives though education, as more than 1.3 million people within Chicago live below the poverty line.

Yet, almost two years later the majority of CPS students are still without the educational resources they need. According to Chi School Librarians, an advocacy group dedicated to the enrichment of CPS students and school librarians, more than 50 percent of Chicago schools are without a certified school librarian and school library program. That’s thousands of missed opportunities to change lives through education and lifelong learning.

It’s clear that Chicago’s leaders have yet to understand the valuable role school librarians play in fostering critical thinking skills, student achievement, and the ability to succeed in a global economy.  Since 1965, more than 60 education and library studies have produced clear evidence that school library programs staffed by qualified school librarians have a positive impact on college and career readiness. It’s the school librarian who is often at the heart of the school, assisting other teachers with development of curriculum, offering a safe haven and homework help to students before and after school, and fostering a confidence in learning.

The critical role of school librarians can be seen at Chicago’s Wendell Phillips Academy High School, where school librarian K.C. Boyd has been instrumental in transforming the school’s reading culture and pioneered the school’s use of social media. Currently 18.2 percent of students are meeting or exceeding state standards, compared with 6.5 percent in 2012, due in part to Boyd’s strong leadership and commitment to fostering a love for reading, which recently was recognized by the Academy for Urban School Leadership, a nonprofit organization that helps chronically low-performing schools.

Chicago — and the whole country — need more success stories like Wendell Phillips Academy High School.  But with less than 50 percent of libraries unstaffed with school librarians, the odds for success are diminishing.

School librarians are vital in the age of instant access to information. Technology is a staple within new Common Core State Standards, yet many hold the false assumption that the Internet in and of itself – e.g., search engines, Wikipedia and social media — are adequate substitutions for the research expertise and the guidance of a school librarian. In truth, although today’s youth is typically immersed in technology, few know how to use it well.

According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project Online Survey of Teachers, although the Internet has opened up a vast world of information for today’s students, their digital literacy skills have yet to catch up. Twenty-four percent of those surveyed stated that students lack the ability to assess the quality and accuracy of information they find online. Another 33 percent reported that students lacked the ability to recognize bias in online content.

Chicago Public School students deserve to have a level playing field. My hope is that city leaders will fulfill their promise to provide all students with tools needed for a quality education: a certified school librarian in every Chicago Public School.

Terri Grief is the president of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), a division of the American Library Association (ALA) and a high school librarian in Western Kentucky. Grief will join more than 10,000 library professionals at McCormick Place for the ALA Midwinter Meeting & Exhibition, Jan. 30 – Feb. 3. 

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