Baltimore's public schools are planning a four-year, $60 million effort to transform understaffed libraries with too few books into true centers of reading and research.
There are fewer than 60 certified librarians in the city's 182 schools. Schools have on average 4,880 books, about a third the number the state says is the standard, and often there are no computers with Internet access.
Administrators want every child to have access to a good school library, where there are books to read for pleasure and information that complements what they are learning in class.
It's not clear yet how the initiative will be funded. With only $4 million allocated in next year's budget for library improvements, the system will have to raise a significant amount in private donations as well as push for additional state and local help.
"We are going full steam ahead with this to try to get it done," said school board President J. Tyson Tildon. "It's got to be done."
School officials have held a series of meetings with the private sector, he said, and there seems to be interest. He declined to be specific.
At least 11 school libraries could be revamped this summer, Tildon said. In some cases, libraries will get new furniture and carpets as well as books and computers, officials said.
The goal is to bring all libraries up to standards. Larger schools, with more than 300 students, would get a full-time librarian with a degree in both teaching and library science; smaller ones would have a part-time librarian. All would have computers.
Although city educators talk about the growing importance of technology in libraries, the majority of the money would be spent on beefing up collections of books, periodicals and other printed materials and videos.
Core of education
"Reading is the first step you take on the information highway," said Betty Morgan, chief academic officer. "Libraries foster literacy and they foster the core of what we do in education."
Joseph J. Kirkman, chief technology officer, and other school officials are talking with Enoch Pratt Free Library about the Pratt donating books and other resources to schools in areas where branches are closed. The school system also is considering whether libraries in those schools could remain open, at least to students, after normal school hours.
The Pratt plans to close five branches this summer, but it won't reveal which ones until next month.
School libraries across the state have been in decline for the past two decades. A survey by the Maryland Department of Education showed that only one in five Maryland school libraries meet standards for the number of books and other supplies.
The reason, in part, is that fewer resources have been earmarked for libraries. In the city, even when money is allocated, principals have the flexibility to spend their budgets as they see fit.
"It is not that we wouldn't like to have a full-time librarian," said Carol Wehener, a part-time librarian at Hampstead Hill Elementary School in East Baltimore. "The choice has been to have the librarian or have more teachers and lower class sizes across the school. The choice becomes what is the best for the education of the children."
Some principals have turned to the private sector for help.
Hampstead Hill Principal Sharman Rowe has taken advantage of partnerships with business groups and other schools to gather used and new books for the library. This year, donations to the school library have increased its collection by about 1,200 books, to 3,500, still far short of what the state says is adequate.
Donations of books
Elmer Wolfe Elementary in Carroll County contributed many books, as McDonogh School, a private school in Baltimore County, has done in the past.
Hampstead is luckier than most city schools. Wehener, who is also a half-time teacher, is backed up by four dedicated parents who come in daily to keep the library open during the lunch hour and for 20 minutes after the school day ends.
Rowe said the need to improve her school library increased as her pupils' reading level improved. "It has become a stronger part of our school culture," she said of the library.