The library inside the historic DuSable High School building on the South Side looks every bit the part: Large windows, walls covered with books, some old wooden card catalogs, tables full of students reading.
But the kids refer to the space as something more: A peaceful place. A source of comfort and skilled help. A sanctuary.
So when they learned their librarian’s position was being cut as of winter break next week, they sat down Friday morning in the hallways outside their library, and refused to go to class until Chicago Public Schools gave her back. They parked themselves on the floors to read and pleaded on social media to #SaveOurLibrarian.
Sara Sayigh was one of Chicago’s last full-time librarians in a majority black high school; only Morgan Park High School’s and Chicago Vocational’s remain, according to Chicago Teachers Union data.
The 13-year campus veteran learned earlier this week that her job was going away. She has been serving about 700 students at both Bronzeville Scholastic Institute and Daniel Hale Williams Prep high schools, and some of those students quickly organized some opposition.
Dion Warr, an 18-year-old senior at BSI, couldn’t believe what would happen to the “sanctuary” where she began seeking refuge as a freshman, and stuck around for after-school programs: book club, improv classes with Second City.
Warr, who should have been in an English class, hugged Sayigh, who gave her a tissue.
“This is where I went when everybody else had the cliques and the groups,” Warr said. “Ms. Sayigh means so much to us. She’s my at-school mom. This library has been a foundation for kids who are huge readers.”
Quintin Montague, a class of 2012 graduate from BSI, was one of several alumni who returned to see Sayigh. Now in college, he credited his former librarian with turning him into a reader.
“I had to” come back, he said. “She’s like one of the moms.”
Senior Moyet Stenson described the space as the “only peaceful place in the school.”
“A lot of people take it to heart. Some have no Internet at home, no peaceful place at home.”
Sayigh said she wasn’t specifically told why she was being let go. CPS didn’t respond to requests for comment.
CPS officials apparently told the students the room would remain open with help of parent volunteers. Later, according to Sayigh, they told students they were looking for funding for the position.
Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) confirmed she also agreed to meet with student leaders on Monday.
One of the student organizers reminded her classmates in the hallway that volunteers weren’t acceptable.
“We’re not moving, not until she gets her position back,” she told them.
The Chicago Teachers Union called for librarians in every school, accusing CPS of “dismantling critical library programs.”
“While it is not surprising that yet again, the burden of ‘broke on purpose’ budget cuts has fallen on the most segregated schools, this new disparity is alarming,” CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement.
Only 2 out of 28 high schools with a student population over 90 percent African-American have a library staffed by a certified librarian, the CTU said. Of 46 high schools with a majority African American student population, only 15 percent have librarians. Districtwide, 32 percent of high schools have a librarian.
Civil rights icon and DuSable alumnus Timuel Black said the building “always had a librarian, which was an asset not just to the students but to the community itself.”
Removing the post “would be not only an insult to the history of the school and the library, but a disadvantage to the community which has access to the library, and certainly to those of us who have spent many years in the library even after graduation for information that would not be available anywhere else.”
Sayigh is not only a librarian, she’s a trained member of BSI’s International Baccalaureate team who helps kids research and write 4,000-word papers.
“Not only is IB important to Chicago,” IB coordinator Kristen Machczynski said, referring to the mayor’s love of the rigorous high school program, “IB puts a significant value on librarians.” She added that the committee who authorized the school’s IB curriculum after a lengthy process included the librarian in their evaluation.
Machczynski worried about who would fill Sayigh’s role, and not just for the IB students.
“She is just such an integral part of this community — she is the glue that holds this place together.”