By Alex Alper
On November 12, P.S. 9 and M.S. 571 unveiled a revamped school library, which they promptly closed, because there was no librarian.
“Here we truly came together…with a common cause … and created this for our youngsters,” said Sandra D’Avilar, Principal of the elementary school that renovated the library, but whose tightened budget no longer had room for a librarian. “And it’s still not enough to make someone from the Board of Education call and say, ‘hey, we found some money. We‘re going to send someone you can interview, and we’re going to find you a librarian.’”
Out of 880 elementary schools in New York City, 519 had a library and no librarian last year. That’s more than a 300 percent increase in elementary school libraries without libraries over the previous year, after remaining relatively flat over the previous three years.
“Accountability trumps everything,” said a city education department insider who wanted to remain anonymous, because of the sensitivity of the issue. “There is no accountability for information skills, just for literacy and math; therefore, principals figure that libraries don’t make a difference in their bottom line of student test scores.”
The cuts follow a long trend: since 1998, the first year for which there is data available, New York City elementary school librarians have decreased by more than half.
“What is happening all around the country is that, as schools are faced with budget cuts and they have to decide what is going to go…they are eliminating the library because it is harder to rationalize cutting a teacher,” said Kiki Dennis, a parent at P.S. 9 and decorator who designed the library said.
Nationally, figures were not available especially for elementary schools, but the number of school librarians decreased by about 3 percent.
New York State law requires elementary schools to have libraries, but not librarians. Middle and high schools are required to have both.
Many legislative efforts have been made to extend the librarian requirement to elementary schools in New York but so far none have been successful.
In 1985, the Citizen’s Committee for Children and the Women’s City Club of New York, conducted a study of New York City elementary schools and recommended that the librarian mandate be extended to K-6. They were unsuccessful, just as a bill requiring the same thing was rejected in the state assembly in 1994.
In a three-part study, Ruth Schwartz, Director of School Media Program at Syracuse University found that elementary students in schools where there were well-trained, certified librarians, had significantly higher test scores on national achievement tests than elementary schools that did not have such personnel, even if they had a library. While the correlation existed for secondary students as well, it was much more significant at the elementary level.
“This was ammunition to make the case for certified librarians at the elementary level and we were making progress, and then this financial crisis hit and all our efforts flew out the door,” she said.
Arkansas, Hawaii, and South Carolina all have state laws requiring that every school have a school librarian, according to Nancy Everhart, President of the American Association of School librarians. Many states lack a librarian mandate at any level, she says.
But despite the almost unanimous support for extending the librarian mandate to elementary schools, the Commissioner’s regulation on librarian placement has not changed substantially since it was passed in 1928.
According to a State Education official who also declined to be named, the state’s push to ensure all school librarians are certified is also causing the decline. Finding certified librarians is sometimes a challenge.
The number of certified librarians in New York City elementary schools has increased almost three fold since 1998. In the same period, the number of uncertified librarians at the elementary level decreased by three quarters.
Another reason for school library neglect is the strength of the New York Public library system, the fourth largest in the country, without 87 branches.
P.S. 9 is five blocks from a public library and books line the shelves of most elementary school classrooms.
Still, the parents of P.S. 9 were adamant that the school have its own library, funded through grants from Brooklyn politicians.
“Our goal is to really have this be a fully staffed space that becomes an educational tool and resource, an additional support to the curriculum that is happening here,” said Dennis.
Parents are confident the school will get funding for a librarian.
“The numbers can get crunched. Something can get moved around. Somebody who might be on payroll might be moved off,” said Laura Jaffe, another P.S. 9 parent. “[D’Avilar] doesn’t just think outside the box. She throws away the box.”