Who lays off librarians? CPS, that's who

Reader, I am embarrassed to write this post today, and I am ashamed for you to read it. But I am writing it anyway because it probably concerns something you don’t know about fully and I want everyone to know about this fully. Then we can decide what to do about it.

I recently met a remarkable librarian. Remarkable librarian. Perhaps this little phrase is a tautology. Aren’t all librarians remarkable? Don’t they know alchemies the rest of us do not? Can’t they recommend the right book to anyone in any circumstance, navigate the latest information technology, and turn us in the proper direction for any research, no matter how obscure, or banal? Aren’t they the ones who would never ever laugh at any question? And value reading and free access to books over all else? Are a bulwark against censorship? Can reach any kid and throw them a life preserver of the perfect book–a lifeline to an entire future?

You know this. I know this. I don’t even need to waste space on this.

Back to that singular, remarkable librarian.

Sara Sayigh has been holding down the fort at three co-located schools in a glorious historic building in the heart of Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. She runs the library programs at one charter and two publics all mingled together in one great building–named by Rahm as a Chicago Landmark in 2013. DuSable High used to serve the old Robert Taylor Homes and before that was the home of Captain Walter Dyett’s nation-changing music program. (You think I’m exaggerating? He educated Nat Cole. But that is a story for another day.) In 2005, the former DuSable was closed and the school broken up into three small schools, back when Arne Duncan thought small schools were just the thing. (Since then of course we now know that small schools are too small to stay open, so we close them in most cases, but back then they were created all over the city.)

DuSable Leadership Academy/Betty Shabazz International Charter Schools, Bronzeville Scholastic Academy, and Daniel Hale Williams Preparatory School all share the premises, and share the old beautiful library, named and dedicated in honor of one Irma Frazier Clarke, the first head librarian at the old DuSable High. She served from 1935 when the school opened to 1968 when she retired, and went on to live until 2001. She was 100 then. She created a 25,000 volume collection including an invaluable set of volumes on African American literature, history, and philosophy. I think she would be horrified to hear that the last remaining librarian’s position was just cut. 

We know how this goes. It’s happened hundreds of times already in CPS.  In their roughly 600 schools, CPS only retains about 250 librarians. In most cases when the librarian goes, the library is soon to follow. After all, how do you maintain a facility without any staff? And often the space is needed for more classroom space. Gutting school libraries and failing to staff them is an old CPS pastime.

At the DuSable Campus, Ms. Sayigh is a calm but buoyant presence who loves and respects her students. She tells me it’s a myth that teenagers don’t read. Hers do, all the time. The first thing you see when you go into her space is a shelf full of student recommendations. She runs a weekly book club. She has a cabinet of books so popular that it’s kept behind the circulation desk to keep especially close tabs on the volumes.

She handles other things beyond the library, as most librarians do. She created the large technology lab across the hall by means of grant writing, and staffs that too. I tried to find out how many librarians handle the technology positions at their schools, but I must’ve asked the wrong folks at CPS because nobody was especially forthcoming. But the fact is, a room full of computers without a technology staff person is maybe even more ludicrous than a library without a librarian.

On top of everything else, she runs the After School Matters programs at her schools–all that remains of after school or extracurricular activities at a school that used to have a woodshop, engineering, home ec, a publishing house that created its own yearbooks, and of course, a legendary music program. I got to see all that stuff in the old yearbooks Ms. Sayigh showed me. All that’s gone now, subject to budget cuts and ideological whims du jour. What money there is–which we continually hear CPS has none of–goes to testing and all its attendant apparatus, inane contracts for edtech, a massive layer of middle management known as the Networks, and hundreds of millions in debt obligations for all those great swaps set up by David Vitale. A couple of after school programs may not seem like much, but they’re pretty much gold in the stark setting of the continuous imposed CPS budget crisis, and they won’t happen without a facilitator.

Beyond the itemized list of things she manages at the three schools, there are things that can’t be listed but are perhaps more important still. I visited over lunch time and all three schools had many kids coming in during their lunch hour, talking quietly, using the computers, reading at the tables. “This is a safe space for them,” Sara says of her students. “I don’t know what will happen to that when I am gone.” She collaborates with teachers on their research projects–communication that takes a long time to establish. She started an oral history project in the building about its long backwards reach of big personalities and events–so critical for neighborhood kids to know their very own history.

Those kids love her so much that when they heard the news of her firing they cut their classes and staged a “read-in,” started online and paper petitions, and took to twitter.

You should know that all three of these schools that are losing their 79-year-old library with its librarian who kids refer to as “the heart of the school” have populations of 94 to 96% of impoverished families.

Think about that for a minute, middle class comfortable Chicagoan with your likely life not in a severely disinvested neighborhood. Just stop reading and soak up that statistic.

Okay. You can go on now.

How important are school libraries for families in low income neighborhoods?

Well, they are absolutely critical for kids to attain strong literacy, according to this 2013 study of the impact of school libraries:

Research confirms that the fundamental purpose of school libraries is to provide access to books…. Access to books not only fosters an early love of learning and has a positive effect on reading achievement, but appears also to offset the impact of poverty. Results of studies show that children of poverty perform poorly on reading tests because they have very little access to books at home and in their communities. Unfortunately, at least one study indicates that students in most need – those attending schools with the highest concentration of students living in poverty – have access to the fewest school library resources.

The disparity among low income areas and high income areas with regard to school libraries is breathtaking, like a sucker punch, as we well know in CPS, and as a Los Angeles study attests.

Libraries can make a huge difference — but inequalities persist there too. A study of book access in Los Angeles, co-authored by Krashen, found that school classrooms in Beverly Hills offered children eight times as many books as classrooms in Watts and Compton. Their school libraries also carried about three times as many titles and their public libraries carried roughly twice as many.

And don’t kid yourself about the results of those disparities. The school-to-prison pipeline is real and has been exacerbated in every way by corporate or market-based education reform. Neil Gaiman sums it up painfully.

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

I have one more statistic to share, in this post filled with shameful things. The school where Rahm’s children attend, U of C Lab, maintains a library staff of 13.

Mayor. You’re in an “owning” mood these days. I’d like you to own something more. You are the ostensible head of CPS, with your unelected board of noneducators, and your uneducated in every way about education CEO. Tell me. Tell me how closing a library in this neighborhood and for three high schools serves these students. Own this decision, stand behind it. If you are going to cut libraries from the poorest communities, own it. If you are going to eliminate necessary resources from our city’s most vulnerable citizens, own it. If you choose to implement the school-to-prison pipeline, own it. If you are going to create the conditions for schools to have to decide between librarians and classroom teachers, own it. Own it. Tell us all your rationale, defend your decision, and own it. 

If you think kids at three high schools in a disinvested neighborhood should be able to keep their last librarian, why don’t you call the mayor’s office at 312/744-3300. Or you can try CEO Forrest Claypool, 773/553-1000. Or how about board president Frank Clark, 773/553-1590. Or if you’re feeling wildly and fantastically futile you can try city council education chair Will Burns: 312/744-2690. Let them know what you think.

If you want a better Chicago Public Schools system please like my Facebook page and join me there for more discussion. You can also follow me on twitter @foolforcps.

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