Lost: school libraries

Years of neglect sever a vital link to learning

September 01, 2000

THIS IS WHAT a trip to the school library means to Lashawna, a third-grader at Belmont Elementary in West Baltimore: a chance to watch videos, play hand games and do her hair.

Reading? She looks forward to that, too. But her choices are pretty limited. The shelves in the library are full of books up to 50 years old and encyclopedias from the 1970s.

Learning? There's not much time for that. Her class visits the library just twice a month for less than an hour. The most ambitious lesson offered by the retired teacher filling in as librarian is identifying the parts of a book.

Lashawna's experience could take place almost anywhere in Maryland, where few school libraries can meet state standards.

But Lashawna's chances for a real library are next to nil because she lives in Balt- imore, once a nat- ional model for public school lib- raries but now part of a nat- ional disaster. Today, fewer than 7 percent of the city's elementary school libraries meet the state's minimum collection-size standards -- never mind quality standards.

And we wonder why kids don't learn to read, or why they post dismal scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests.

The state is pouring millions of dollars into city schools to reduce class sizes, shore up curriculum and provide more materials. Ultimately, the goal is to correct the educational injustices that have led to 85 percent of city students doing unsatisfactory work on MSPAP.

But without an equal infusion of money to resurrect dying city school libraries, the state's approach isn't likely to work.

Why? Because librarians teach the skills coveted by MSPAP -- problem-solving, decision-making and reasoning. The library is where students find information and make it their own. It's where they learn to love learning, and reading.

Building school reform around MSPAP without high-quality school libraries is like building a house without interior walls. Eventually, the whole thing will crumble.

Libraries' critical role has been documented in three state studies. In Alaska, Colorado and Pennsylvania, students scored an average of 10 to 15 points higher on state standardized tests when their schools had strong library programs and adequate, qualified staff.

This kind of leap in scores would be breathtaking for Baltimore's schools. But it's unlikely while the landscape looks like this:

There's the library-in-a-bag, toted by the traveling librarian as she makes rounds between the three or four schools she serves part-time.

And the invisible library, stashed in a nearby church basement because Highlandtown Elementary No. 237 is short of space.

And the librarian sleight-of-hand, which moves the system's few certified library media specialists between schools each year like checkers. "It's like being an itinerant preacher," one former librarian says. "You never know where you'll be the next year."

In a system where principals are forced to choose between textbooks and pencils -- and art and music courses have disappeared altogether -- it's little wonder that the library has been beset by "benign neglect" or passed over in the quest to stretch a buck.

Nevertheless, the sad state of public school libraries is inexcusable; opportunities for better teaching and learning are being forfeited.

Without an infusion of effort and money to repair the state's broken public school library system -- and a special effort to revive the city schools' libraries -- students will continue to fall short of their potential to become independent lifelong learners.

Study and research. Instruction. Class projects. Reading for fun.

These are the things children should be getting in Baltimore's school libraries, according to the state's newly revised standards. But success hinges on something precious few schools have: a real library.

A high-quality library isn't a one-shot purchase. The library must grow and change consistently. It's a place where bright, current books capture the eyes and imaginations of students; films, recordings and computers offer tempting chances to learn still more. And the librarian is the natural guide as children learn to navigate it all.

The mission is clear: Every book, film and reference should be tied to what is taught in the curriculum.

A school library should be as much a center for instruction as the classroom, and here's why: In the school library, children become explorers and discover the excitement of finding information on their own. It is this essential treasure hunt that fires the desire to learn.

"Teaching [those] skills starts in the school library. Practicing them starts in the public library," says Deborah Taylor, head of children's services at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

And the skills should come early. By third grade, for example, students should be learning to gather information. By fifth grade, they should be evaluating the quality of that information -- an essential skill for MSPAP success.

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