Balto. Co. school librarians skeptical of changes

Baltimore County school librarians are worried about their next chapter.

New schools Superintendent Dallas Dance wants to eliminate from school system policy a written requirement that each school have a librarian and has shifted library science functions from the instruction and curriculum department to testing and technology.

Dance said that neither the reorganization nor the proposed policy revisions are intended as a slight to librarians, and that he doesn't intend to reduce the number of librarians working in county schools. The policy is one of several being reviewed to make language clearer, more concise and aligned with state standards, school officials said.

"It is absolutely not the intent of the administration to eliminate library specialists from schools," Dance said. "They're not going anywhere."

But librarians say the moves send a different signal.

"We see ourselves as teachers, so we don't understand why we're being moved from instruction and curriculum," said Christine Beard, library media specialist at Ridgely Middle School. "And we can't just hand students laptops and say, 'Here, go use Google and Wikipedia.' That's not research. You have to teach them how to research."

The angst comes amid the first reorganization by Dance, who arrived in July, of Maryland's third-largest school system. It's also an example of tensions that can arise as libraries continue to move into the digital age.

Susan Ballard, president of the American Association of School Librarians, said that she was "stunned" to see a shake-up of any kind for the county's library program. She said the county has been at the forefront of embracing "hybrid positions," in which library specialists handle both traditional and digital instruction.

The county has an "enviable" reputation nationally, she said, and the longtime head of Baltimore County's library program, Della Curtis, was the only librarian to be named a national Leader of the Year by Tech & Learning Magazine in 2011.

"It doesn't make sense to me to some degree, because if any school system seemed well positioned to embrace hybrid positions, it would be Baltimore County," Ballard said. "They were technology leaders, and really a fulcrum where you could balance teaching and learning. I guess sometimes when you work so efficiently, people can take that for granted."

Under the reorganization, Dance moved the county's 162 library specialists from the Division of Curriculum and Instruction to the Division of Accountability, Performance Management, Research and Technology.

The move was intended to prepare the county for new reforms, such as the new common core standards, Dance said. The standards, being implemented by Maryland and numerous other states, are a more rigorous curriculum. As part of the program, the state is planning to incorporate online student assessments.

Beard pointed out that the curriculum standards mention the word "research" 76 times, and that libraries are going to be critical resources for students.

"We're going to be very busy," she said. "We're going to be teaching now more than ever."

Dance said that the district is facing the reality that the role of the library, and school librarians, will evolve. "If you look at the national trend of libraries right now, they're going digital," he said. "In the next five years, you're going to see them teaching children from a digital platform. So we have to prepare for that."

In the librarians' new division, Dance added executive directors of instructional technology and information technology.

Dance acknowledged that he hadn't had a conversation with librarians about the long-term implications of the changes but said he wanted curriculum and technology to be "married to each other."

"If the organizational structure is not in place, the conversation can't take place," Dance said. "But no way are we diminishing their roles. In fact, we are enhancing them."

Dance has proposed eliminating sections of school system policy that require librarians to be state-certified specialists and refer to them as educators who work closely with classroom teachers and are integral to shaping curricula.

In addition, he wants to strike sections that stipulate that all schools "provide and maintain school libraries and ensure sufficient staffing" and that the superintendent "annually request sufficient funds to maintain services."

While the organizational shift was approved last month, public comment on the policy revisions was postponed the day before last week's school board meeting — when several librarians planned to speak about the proposed changes.

School officials said the policy, first introduced Feb. 19, was sent back to the school system's policy review committee for further evaluation in light of feedback received from library specialists.

Beard still addressed the board and recalled that in the 1990s, 35 Baltimore County principals decided to let their certified library media specialists go after the school district implemented "site-based management" that gave principals the authority to staff their schools. During that time, funding for per-pupil funding for school libraries plunged from $10.86 to $1.77, she said.

The losses were replenished by a renewed commitment from the district to fund the county's library program and a partnership with Towson University that provided more library specialists, Beard said. Those steady resources have ensured that shelves are stocked and that technology resources are adequate for students, teachers and families, Beard said. But, she added, the system needs an explicit policy to ensure it continues.

"There's a reason some things are spelled out," Beard said. "We have long memories."

Ballard agreed, saying that the county's librarians are raising "very legitimate concerns" about eliminating the language in the policy.

"I think that the language indicates their commitment to a shared vision, by saying that we recognize this program is not just a physical space, it's a 24/7, 365-[day] operation, with librarians' presence required not just in the classroom," she said.

"I would hope that the decision makers and policymakers reconsider."

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