Losing school librarians in Chicago Public Schools

July 23, 2014

Flickr/AdmissionsQuest

Having a school library with a full-time librarian is becoming something of a luxury in Chicago’s 600-plus public schools.

Two years ago, Chicago Public School budgeted for 454 librarians.
Last year: 313 librarians.
This year? 254.

Those are the numbers Megan Cusick, a librarian at Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative School, laid out at a recent meeting held by the parent group Raise Your Hand.

“As many of you recall, around the time we went on strike, we talked about how we had 160 schools that did not have school libraries,” Cusick said. “This shows what came after.”

Cusick and her colleagues have started speaking out about the dwindling number of librarians in CPS. They showed up at last month’s Board of Education meeting and many spoke at last week’s budget hearings.

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett says the librarian shortage is because there aren’t enough librarians in the hiring pool.

“It’s not that we don’t want to have librarians in libraries,” Byrd-Bennett said at last month’s board meeting. “Nobody can argue that point, but the pool is diminished.”

So where have all the librarians gone?

Cusick said there’s not a shortage, like Byrd-Bennett stated, and it’s not that librarians are being laid off. It’s that they’re being re-assigned to classrooms..

“There are a number of certified librarians who are in classrooms,” Cusick explained. “English classrooms, world languages, in elementary schools, teaching a particular grade level. The people are there, they’re just not staffing the library, they’re staffing another classroom.”

Some of the city’s best-performing schools have eliminated full-time librarians.

That’s what happened at Nettelhorst Elementary in East Lakeview last school year. Scott Walter is a parent representative on the local school council at Nettelhorst and a librarian at DePaul University.

“We got down to the point of saying, well, we have a classroom and it doesn’t have a teacher,” he said.

In the state of Illinois, all librarians must also have teaching certifications, and most also have endorsements to teach specific grades and subjects.

When the district stopped funding positions and let principals and school councils decide how to spend their money, many had a hard time making the numbers add up.

For Nettelhorst, it was “here’s the position and she can be in a library or we can have a teacher in front of 30 kids,” Walter said. “And no matter how much you love libraries and as much as I do, you can’t have a classroom without a teacher in front of it.”

Walter says even though the librarian is now teaching 4th grade, the students can still use the library, because the clerk and parent volunteers help staff it.

Still, he says, it’s a lose-lose.

“As a parent, it feels that CPS has set us up into a situation where we have to decided which finger we don’t want,” Walter said.

There’s no required amount of minutes for library instruction in the state of Illinois.

In a fact sheet to WBEZ, CPS officials touted the expanded virtual libraries available to all students. And at the very top of the page in bold letters and underlined, a spokesperson wrote “we will not be satisfied until we have central and/OR classroom-based libraries in every school.”

Cusick said librarians do so much more than just check out books. They teach kids how to do research, how to find and evaluate information, a skill that’s becoming even more important in the digital age.

“Kids don’t just know how to do that,” Cusick notes. “It’s not a skill that they develop just because they have an iPhone or because they have a computer at home, which many of our students don’t have.”

Cusick and her colleagues don’t want to see librarians added at the expense of other positions, like art teachers and physical education teachers. But they also don’t want to see school libraries just become places where meetings and press conferences are held.