Rebeka Gomez Wick, a fourth-grader at Phelps Luck Elementary School in Columbia, was having trouble with her math homework this month until she got a tutorial on calculating percentages.
The coaching did not come from her parents or her teacher. Instead, Susan Stonesifer, a librarian at Howard County Central Library, steered Rebeka to a Web site where her question was answered.
Public libraries have long been a place for students to seek help with research and homework. But public librarians frequently did not know which questions were being asked in the classrooms, or lacked the resources to help students find answers.
That disconnect is disappearing. Confronted with lagging student performance and limited resources, schools and public libraries are reaching out to form closer partnerships, with explicit goals, to make better use of the libraries as an education tool.
Howard's library and school system hope to show the way in Maryland with a new program called A+ Partners in Education, which promotes collaborations between school media specialists and librarians, and encourages students to use Web databases and an online tutorial service called tutor.com.
The Howard move is unusual, experts say, because the library and schools have created a shared mission statement and written goals, establishing a more formal agreement.
"This is a good model. ... This is an example of how the resources can be strengthened even more. Nationally, people will look at Howard," said Carla D. Hayden, executive director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore and president-elect of the American Library Association.
"We have developed a comprehensive way to reach all students," said Howard County Library Director Valerie J. Gross. "It's taking the library into the schools, and taking the schools into the library."
One of the benefits of the Howard agreement is that it establishes a policy that some say could help bring in state grant money to strengthen the library's resources. Gross said she is confident that the partnership will attract attention when she applies for grants because "we can show that the actual track record is there," she said. "It will help us demonstrate that there is commitment."
Harriet Henderson, library director in Montgomery County, said that the written agreement could make a difference. She said her librarians also work with school liaisons, but not to the extent that Howard librarians plan to do.
"The difference is, Howard County has done it from the system level to the system level," Henderson said. "It gives school support to the patrons of the library and the students. It makes it more a policy of the school system."
Carol Fritts, coordinator of media and educational technology for Howard County schools, said the partnership "opens up the lines of communication" between school media specialists and librarians. The school system is expected to share information about curriculum, homework and extracurricular assignments.
Maintaining the partnership will require extra effort on the part of the librarians; Gross said she does not plan to hire additional staff members in the immediate future. Because this year's budget is set, she said, the library will not pour money into additional resources.
Under the partnership, public librarians will be encouraged to conduct site visits and speak to students on library field trips, and a staff member will be responsible for forwarding registration materials to schools and coordinating mailings. Gross said the library also might make a promotional video for teachers to show in classrooms.
All of those tasks take time and energy.
"What I've been telling staff [members] who do have some concerns is that, every time a fine idea comes along, say, 'Yes, let's look at it,'" Gross said.
"We can handle a lot of the objectives. This is opening up doors that for very little extra effort it will give our students better opportunities."
Jeanne Leitzel, a media specialist who sees students in first through fifth grades at Phelps Luck Elementary, said she typically puts aside materials for teachers who have planned class research projects. Now she also will have to contact a librarian to explain the assignment, but she said she will not mind taking the extra step.
"I'm trying to give [librarians] the chance so that they don't have one kid come in and wipe out their entire shelf," she said. "It would help if they have more sources available."
Anne Nicodemus, media generalist at Howard High School, said she believes the partnership will not change her job very much. She said the school library always will be a first stop for students, and that a visit to the public library can only be a supplement.
"I'm still going to have to train kids at school to use the search [tools]. ... The media specialist's job is to teach the children how to do the research," Nicodemus said. "Your high achievers and better students have to get that kind of research skill before [they] get there."
As for whether the library will have to spend more money to accommodate students, Gross said staff members who analyze the library's collections might realize that more books or new databases should be ordered.
But, she says, the partnership will not put adult library patrons at a disadvantage, nor will it shortchange any other collections.
Christie Lassen, library spokeswoman, said the partnership could help the library to be more efficient in ordering materials.
"We're just going to be purchasing materials that are going to be useful, rather than those that just sit on a shelf," she said.
Another issue the school system and library could face is deciding whether the partnership is having an impact on student achievement.
Irene M. Padilla, assistant state superintendent for library development and services, said the state plans to hire a consultant to monitor the program. That could be a difficult objective because the state has no guidelines in place at present. Gross said a meeting with the consultant is scheduled for Friday, and she said she hopes to have more answers at that time.
"The type of outcome-based evaluation that we're trying to put together is evidence that this is part of the reason [for an increase in student achievement scores]," Gross said. "It's not going to be the sole reason."
Another unknown is whether students who have Internet connections at home will be better served at the library than those who do not. School spokeswoman Patti Caplan said Howard County does not keep records of how many students have Internet access at home.
Rebeka Gomez Wick, for example, whose family has three computers, chooses to use tutor.com at the library, rather than at home.
Her mother, Cynthia Wick, said the family had not heard about the service until the library and school system announced the formation of A+ Partners in Education. She said the partnership idea was new to her, too.
"It's one of those things that I didn't realize that the school needed, but when I read about it, I just thought, 'What a good idea,'" Wick said.