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Lost: school libraries

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THIS IS WHAT a trip to the school library means to Lashawna, a third-grader at Belmont Elementary in West Baltimore: a chance to watch videos, play hand games and do her hair.

Reading? She looks forward to that, too. But her choices are pretty limited. The shelves in the library are full of books up to 50 years old and encyclopedias from the 1970s.

Learning? There's not much time for that. Her class visits the library just twice a month for less than an hour. The most ambitious lesson offered by the retired teacher filling in as librarian is identifying the parts of a book.

Lashawna's experience could take place almost anywhere in Maryland, where few school libraries can meet state standards.

But Lashawna's chances for a real library are next to nil because she lives in Balt- imore, once a nat- ional model for public school lib- raries but now part of a nat- ional disaster. Today, fewer than 7 percent of the city's elementary school libraries meet the state's minimum collection-size standards -- never mind quality standards.

And we wonder why kids don't learn to read, or why they post dismal scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests.

The state is pouring millions of dollars into city schools to reduce class sizes, shore up curriculum and provide more materials. Ultimately, the goal is to correct the educational injustices that have led to 85 percent of city students doing unsatisfactory work on MSPAP.

But without an equal infusion of money to resurrect dying city school libraries, the state's approach isn't likely to work.

Why? Because librarians teach the skills coveted by MSPAP -- problem-solving, decision-making and reasoning. The library is where students find information and make it their own. It's where they learn to love learning, and reading.

Building school reform around MSPAP without high-quality school libraries is like building a house without interior walls. Eventually, the whole thing will crumble.

Libraries' critical role has been documented in three state studies. In Alaska, Colorado and Pennsylvania, students scored an average of 10 to 15 points higher on state standardized tests when their schools had strong library programs and adequate, qualified staff.

This kind of leap in scores would be breathtaking for Baltimore's schools. But it's unlikely while the landscape looks like this:

There's the library-in-a-bag, toted by the traveling librarian as she makes rounds between the three or four schools she serves part-time.

And the invisible library, stashed in a nearby church basement because Highlandtown Elementary No. 237 is short of space.

And the librarian sleight-of-hand, which moves the system's few certified library media specialists between schools each year like checkers. "It's like being an itinerant preacher," one former librarian says. "You never know where you'll be the next year."

In a system where principals are forced to choose between textbooks and pencils -- and art and music courses have disappeared altogether -- it's little wonder that the library has been beset by "benign neglect" or passed over in the quest to stretch a buck.

Nevertheless, the sad state of public school libraries is inexcusable; opportunities for better teaching and learning are being forfeited.

Without an infusion of effort and money to repair the state's broken public school library system -- and a special effort to revive the city schools' libraries -- students will continue to fall short of their potential to become independent lifelong learners.

Study and research. Instruction. Class projects. Reading for fun.

These are the things children should be getting in Baltimore's school libraries, according to the state's newly revised standards. But success hinges on something precious few schools have: a real library.

A high-quality library isn't a one-shot purchase. The library must grow and change consistently. It's a place where bright, current books capture the eyes and imaginations of students; films, recordings and computers offer tempting chances to learn still more. And the librarian is the natural guide as children learn to navigate it all.

The mission is clear: Every book, film and reference should be tied to what is taught in the curriculum.

A school library should be as much a center for instruction as the classroom, and here's why: In the school library, children become explorers and discover the excitement of finding information on their own. It is this essential treasure hunt that fires the desire to learn.

"Teaching [those] skills starts in the school library. Practicing them starts in the public library," says Deborah Taylor, head of children's services at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

And the skills should come early. By third grade, for example, students should be learning to gather information. By fifth grade, they should be evaluating the quality of that information -- an essential skill for MSPAP success.

By middle school, students should be ready to tackle research papers. But often, they aren't. The domino effect of falling behind is almost as keenly felt in research skills as reading skills. If they aren't mastered by middle school, chances are they won't be.

"If children can't find something, they get frustrated," one southwest-side principal says. Exactly. And that fire of curiosity is quickly extinguished.

Yet these basics are often overlooked, especially by those who seek to help Maryland's school libraries but seem to think if you have a bunch of books, you have a library.

Nothing illustrates this better than the well-intentioned but misguided book drive, in which hundreds -- sometimes thousands -- of randomly selected books are heaped upon a school library by a business or nonprofit group. Can a charity-built collection support a school's curriculum? Of course not.

Schools quietly turn many of these books over to local literacy programs. The few they keep may help fill the shelves, but they sure don't make a library.

Keeping a library thriving requires something called "weeding," or stripping old books from the shelves. This takes extensive time, especially in non-automated systems such as Baltimore's. To get state funding for book purchases, weeding is a must.

But there's a wrinkle. The state also issues collection-size guidelines. It's a mixed message of quality vs. quantity that thwarts improvement. One Baltimore school, for example, lost a grant after the principal ordered out-of-date books returned to the shelves so the collection size didn't fall short of state directives.

Quantity, however, is a worthless measure when "Let's Travel in the Soviet Union" (1960) and "Microbes at Work" (1953) are what's on the shelf.

Some decision-makers take the view that the best way around the book problem is to throw all the state's eggs into the technology basket. They could not be more wrong.

While computers are linking older elementary-age students to far more reference resources, they enhance the print collection -- not the other way around. Books surrounding students, in the library, in backpacks and at bedtime are learning's best promoters. No one reasonably believes that computers will replace books, especially literature.

Books are indeed here to stay. And they should be plentiful in every school's library. But while the American Library Association suggests each school have 20 titles per student, Baltimore's schools average 8 or fewer.

Ironically, a move within schools to put more books at students' fingertips is further compromising central collection funding. Principals at some schools give priority to adding books to class collections. These "libraries," though, offer dubious results.

They are generally haphazard and inconsistent, as illustrated by two classrooms at one southwest elementary school. One collection had about 135 titles; next door, the class had 45 or 50. Many were dog-eared, flea-market books bought by teachers with their own money.

Librarians are another resource often overlooked in schools. They can do much more than keep up with books and read stories.

They can plan lessons collabora tively with teachers, drawing from a variety of resources, including books, videos, recordings and the Internet. They can work with the local public library branch to further widen the learning circle. They can also be a leader in creating reading incentives.

But in Maryland, and especially in Baltimore, these things aren't happening. For 2000-2001, only 47 percent of city schools have budgeted for a school librarian. But just because it's budgeted doesn't mean it will happen.

One thread ties Baltimore's more successful school libraries together: hustle. Principals, teachers, and librarians add grant writing to already full schedules. Small slices of private funds can be the bulk of what schools look forward to for maintaining collections.

As far as state money goes, there's one funding source currently, a four-year, state-local matching grant for elementary book purchases.

Schools must compete for that, too -- though it is the state's obligation to provide children with access to educational basics. It doesn't get much more basic than books.

And the simple truth is this: Grants run out.

As they do, too often, so does hope for maintaining school libraries.

Recommendations

Allowing school libraries to drift for so long has created a sizable problem that cannot be pushed aside any longer. Everyone in Maryland has a role in repairing school libraries -- taxpayers, lawmakers, parents, and business, religious and community leaders. That kind of broad energy and commitment is critical for turning libraries around.

The governor and the State Department of Education should not push library goals without earmarked funds to back them up. While education officials maintain "carrot-and-stick" grants afford accountability and "encourage" principals to give libraries priority, the available funds are shamefully inadequate.

"It's a start" simply doesn't cut it.

Some of Baltimore's elementaries don't even have libraries, though an accurate count is unavailable. The ones that do are uniformly out of date.

In 1998, the state began a four-year commitment totaling $12 million for elementary school library book purchases. But one study puts the cost of upgrading only the science and technology inventory in the state's 811 elementary school libraries at $10 million -- and the cost for the entire collection at about $50 million.

Expecting a cash-strapped local school district like Baltimore to take the lead on libraries is laughable. The state needs to step in now with exceptional measures to bring all libraries up to an equitable level of quality that meets its guidelines. Bond money or holding a special scratch-off lottery are two possibilities to fund the work.

Maryland's annual budget includes an aid formula for public libraries. Why not do the same for school libraries, similarly basing funding on population and equalizing it so jurisdictions with smaller tax bases get a fair shake?

If the state wants each school to have a library media specialist and a clerical assistant, a line item in the state budget should fund it every year. Forget funding "incentives." As long as principals are left to choose between a reading teacher and a librarian, the librarian is at risk.

State leaders can do much to lift libraries to an acceptable level, but it's not their job alone. The city, school board and the schools must be tenacious in overseeing good library programs.

Several elementary schools have strong community partners. The Baltimore public schools' community partnership liaison should work to extend this support to every school. Corporate management and trouble-shooting skills are needed in administering effective programs.

School officials must prove to businesses and foundations that this library commitment will endure. Money raised for libraries by community partners must be spent on libraries exclusively, and not for other school activities.

Foundations can underwrite library-building projects or book purchases; they can also offer grant-writers to schools. And they can pick up the tab for buses so more children visit the Enoch Pratt's imaginative children's room downtown.

Parents and neighbors are also needed as volunteers, an essential role. They can shelve books or read to younger students while the librarian helps older kids with a research project. From this group could come the last but perhaps most important thing Baltimore's libraries need: a champion.

Rallying around the children of our communities is in everyone's interest. Who will accept this special challenge?

Libraries are like apple pie, a given in American life, as one state education official puts it. We can no longer assume, however, that this is true.

One thing's for sure.

The longer we wait, the longer we fail Maryland's children.

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