The fight for school libraries in D.C.

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

Mayor Vincent C. Gray and D.C. Council members have said they want to keep the city's public neighborhood libraries open seven days a week. But Jack Evans has accused them of being all talk and no action. They certainly didn't provide more funding to achieve their goal in the recently approved fiscal year 2013 budget.

"Coming from a small town in Pennsylvania, the library was like a view on the world. I'm not in that small town because of the library," the Ward 2 legislator told me. He has introduced legislation mandating Sunday hours at all branches.

But if those community facilities are critical, doesn't the same hold true for libraries and librarians inside traditional public schools? More than 45,000 children spend their entire day -- five days a week -- in those buildings.

"It's a little harder to do anything with [them]. I can't control the [DCPS] budget," said Evans. "But, I am going to do everything I can to get a librarian and art teacher in every school."

Tragically, later this month, 57 traditional public schools, including 64 percent of those in Ward 5, will open without librarians; 17,000 children will be adversely affected, according to research by the Capitol Hill Public School Parents Organization, or CHPSPO.

Gray and DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson, with council approval, eliminated funding for librarians at schools with student populations of 299 or less. Larger facilities could retain their librarians, but only if principals used "flexible funding;" that money, in many instances, also helps pay for instructional staff.

CHPSPO and other education advocates have urged Henderson to restore funding for librarians citywide; a DCPS official told me that would require less than $5 million. The school system's local budget is more than $800 million.

At least 1,000 people have signed CHPSPO's online petition at change.org. During the spring and early summer, the organization held demonstrations at DCPS and in front of city hall. Finally, Henderson has agreed to meet with them this week.

They are expected to present fascinating statistics that demonstrate the nexus between libraries/librarians and academic proficiency. Their data indicate that those "reward schools" whose recent test scores showed significant progress had either full-time or part-time librarians. Those with full-time librarians had higher proficiency levels, according to CHPSPO.

"There is a strong statistical correlation," said Peter MacPherson, of CHPSPO, while acknowledging the presence of a librarian may not be the sole factor. "But, it matters in a significant way."

The organization's findings seem to contradict Henderson's assertion earlier this year that the school system had not received sufficient return on its investment in librarians.

"They are remarkably clueless," said MacPherson, adding that while the chancellor is hunting for various and unproven approaches to enhance student achievement, she has ignored "known successful strategies."

Evans pledged to introduce his librarian-art teacher legislation this fall. Advocates should support his bill. After all, even before Henderson's program and budget cuts, some traditional schools didn't have any library or a librarian.

Jonetta Rose Barras can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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