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D.C. School Librarians Face An Uncertain Future

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Piles of books sit at a table at one of D.C.'s public libraries.
Jessica Gould
Piles of books sit at a table at one of D.C.'s public libraries.

A group of students at Hearst Elementary School gather around librarian Elizabeth Vandivier as she points a fan at some small, homemade houses. The second-graders have been reading "The Three Little Pigs," so Vandivier asked them to build houses of their own -- out of cardboard, clay, toilet paper, and tape -- to see how much wind it takes to huff, puff and blow their structures down.

"The Three Little Pigs" is all about vulnerability, she says, which is something that's been on her mind a lot in recent weeks.

"I walked in to talk to my principal and said 'Do I still have a job?' And she said, 'No,'" Vandivier recalls.

Earlier this spring, the D.C. public school system distributed funding guidelines for the new fiscal year, and DCPS Chief of Staff Lisa Ruda says rising costs led to some tough decisions.

"At the end of the day, we had to balance our budget, and the library allocation at our smallest schools was one of the hard choices we had to make," she says.

For fiscal year 2013, schools such as Hearst -- with projected enrollments of fewer than 300 students -- will no longer receive a specific funding allocation for a librarian. This is a change from the previous years. For fiscal year 2012, schools with fewer than 250 students received an allocation for a part-time librarian. Schools with greater than 250 students received an allocation for a full-time librarian.

But for the coming year, the librarian position at all schools shifted from "core" funding to "flexible" funding, so principals could choose whether to pay for it or not. In the past, most principals had to petition the school system for permission to forego a librarian.

But all schools can elect to keep librarians, emphasizes Ruda, who adds that no schools are closing libraries.

"Many schools, through partners, through parents, have found ways to staff their libraries," Ruda says, noting that DCPS has partnered with corporations such as Target and Capital One to fund libraries. "We expect more creativity as we move forward with the new school year."

In fact, parents are used to pitching in, according to researcher and historian Satu Haase-Webb. At Capitol Hill Montessori, for example, parents applied for grants and scoured their shelves to support the library. Haase-Webb also makes regular trips to The Library of Congress, which donates its surplus to school libraries as well.

Still, she says parental involvement can't replace the work of a librarian. "A librarian can turn a hesitant reader into an avid reader," she says.

Plus, Carl Harvey, president of the American Association of School Librarians, says running a library is about much more than books these days.

"School libraries teach the process of how you deal with information, how you find it, how you evaluate it and what you do with information," he says. "As we all know, with the Internet, information is exploding everywhere and kids are really going to need skills and processes to deal with that information."

Recent studies have demonstrated a relationship between librarians and literacy. "When schools have access to libraries and librarians, it does positively impact student test scores," says Harvey.

But research also shows the positive impact of smaller class sizes, arts instruction and physical education. Ruda says DCPS officials worked hard to protect those priorities during the budget process.

"In the end, we decided to maintain the classroom staffing allocation, to maintain music and maintain physical education at the elementary school level," she says. "All of that came at a price."

The story isn't over yet. The budget still has to be approved by D.C. Council, then Congress. And while some positions have been cut, many principals have found ways to fund their librarians. Hearst Elementary's Vandivier is one of them.

"We took a look at the numbers, and we took a look at our waiting list," she says. "And we said we were going to get 300 students, although we allocated 299 and ... I had a job again."

For her, for now, it's a happy ending.


[Music: "Book of Love" by Peter Gabriel from Shall We Dance]

Photos: D.C. Libraries

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