I must admit that, five years ago, if you had asked me if a Chicago public school should cut its school library program in order to have another teacher in a classroom and make class sizes smaller, I would’ve agreed. I would’ve argued that though somewhat important, a school library was less vital than another classroom teacher.
I would have come to this assumption mainly because of my personal experiences with school libraries. As a student, my high school library had little to do to shape my overall educational experience. A librarian never came to my classroom to speak about books or database research. An avid book lover and future English major, I never checked out a book from my high school library.
As a teacher in CPS neighborhood schools for eight years, the school library mirrored this effect. At my last school, we had a librarian, but his position was cut before he could get his program underway. As in nearly 70 percent of CPS elementary and high schools, desks and tables sat empty, and books gathered dust. And my students and I were none the wiser of the impact that a school library could have on us.
But then I moved to Lindblom Math and Science Academy, a selective enrollment school on the South Side. The school had a librarian and a library aide, and the library’s doors were open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. At a teacher meeting, the librarian and I connected, and she said she could use someone to open the library for her in the morning. I quickly volunteered thinking the job would be easy, that I could sit in a quiet space in the morning and get some work done.
The first day, I arrived at school to open the library at 6:45 in the morning, and there they were. A line of about 15 students — all African American and Latino — waited to get in. From the moment I opened the door until the start of class time, close to 100 students had visited the library. Many used computers, printed classroom materials, completed homework, and yes, even checked out books! The library became an inspiration to me, so much so that I went to library school and eventually became the school librarian.
In my work, I collaborate with teachers and teach lessons to students on using college-level research databases for their essays and projects. When I taught in schools without a librarian or an effective library program, I never knew these research databases existed. When my students would research, I would usually show them sites to go to for authenticity reasons. They would not see a database until college, while the students at Lindblom begin researching via databases as early as seventh grade.
Our district’s view of school libraries as a non-vital school entity is the reason that this disparity is happening in schools across our city. According to WBEZ, CPS budgeted for only 160 school librarians in our district of 500 schools. In suburban districts, many school library programs have two librarians and a support staff. Our district needs to take notice that cutting school libraries is not helping to close the achievement gap. According to the American Association of School Librarians, 21 state studies show that school librarians have a large impact on student achievement. In fact, when comparing students who have a school librarian to those who don’t, the difference in reading achievement ranges from eight percent in high schools to 35 percent in elementary schools. CPS’s practice of cutting school libraries is giving our most vulnerable population less equity than those who live in different zip codes or attend a school with a librarian.
Students at every school in our nation should have access to a library program like Lindblom. Our library is a cultural hot-spot brimming with students in the morning, at lunchtime, and in the evening. Students check out books, technology, and board games on a daily basis. They use computers to complete classwork, bring their lunch to make a Writing Center appointment, study in groups for an upcoming quiz, and recite poetry to one another for an upcoming slam.
The Chicago Teachers’ Union often defends school librarians and has suggested that CPS provide funding to dedicate a position at each every school, which would be a solid and much-welcomed solution. The problem is that these programs are being cut not just locally but across the nation. Whether by using local or federal dollars, we must preserve school librarian, counselor, nurse, and other specialist positions before they vanish in Title I districts across America. We must fight for our students to receive vital programs like the school library and all of the benefits that come with having one.
Gina Caneva is a 13-year CPS veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and Writing Center Director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum.