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Library specialists fear dwindling school ranks

It used to be that fifth-grade teacher Lisa Hudson could count on the school librarian at any time in her Walled Lake Schools elementary building.

He shelved and checked out books, helped students select books he knew they would like and set up educational displays in the library – rockets, for example, to support other classroom lessons. He provided teachers with books of a certain genre they were teaching, like mysteries or biographies, and he used his structured time with students teaching reading lessons that supported Michigan's learning and testing benchmarks.

But with budget cuts in the suburban district this year forcing the elimination of half the elementary school librarians -- or media specialists as they are now called to reflect their growing duties related to computers and technology -- Hudson’s colleague is only in her school two days a week. He spends the other three in a second elementary. That means Hudson's students only see him once a week during their “media” session, where he teaches keyboarding and basic Internet research.

“It’s sad,” said Hudson. “He really knew the kids and what they liked to read and what they were excited about. I can teach that to my kids, but it was nice having another adult in the school who could help.”

In the Holt School District, near Lansing, library teacher Teresa Asch has to cover libraries in two separate buildings. “Either both buildings are serviced not as well as what they should be or one is done pretty well and the other is not,” she explained.

The Michigan Department of Education doesn’t track the number of libraries in schools, nor can officials easily compare the current number of media specialists to historical levels. However, the department acknowledges a disturbing trend -- libraries and media centers are often threatened byMichigan's shrinking budgets.

The cuts may be library closures in some buildings, forcing students “off campus” to another location for books and computer lab time. Or certified library staff may be returned to classrooms and replaced with lower-salaried paraprofessionals. Teachers lose the support librarians provide in helping choose classroom reading material. Students may lose media class time, and computer labs could have hours shortened. The implications are numerous; the prospects grim.

The Michigan Association for Media in Education -- the professional group for what used to be called simply “librarians” -- has about half the members it did just a few years ago, said Tim Staal, the executive director. “I know a lot of districts where, in the past, they had five or six librarians or they had one library per building and now they have one library for the whole district and multiple buildings,” Staal explained.

The future isn’t likely to see a reversal of the trend. At Wayne State University, the number of students seeking a media specialist concentration is in “dramatic decline,” says Sandra Yee, dean of the University Library System. Three years ago, 25 students were doing the school library and media practicum. For the fall semester, enrollment was just two.

Yee is worried. “We know from many research studies that have been done that well-funded, well-stocked and well-organized school libraries that are staffed by an accredited or qualified school librarian actually help to improve student learning and improves literacy rates,” she said. “The critical thing is that libraries provide the opportunity for independent access to reading for students plus that integration of research with the teaching and learning that the teachers do.”

Schools actually are not mandated to have libraries, said Peter Spadafore, the assistant director of governmental relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards. Nor is there a direct funding stream for them. With state funding suffering another roughly $470 per pupil cut this year, Spadafore expects further threats as school boards look for places to trim spending.

“It’s important that students are exposed to books and reading, but when your district is being judged on test scores, you’re going to spend the money there instead of in a library,” he said. “It’s pennywise and pound foolish in a lot of cases, but it’s the reality we’re under with massive cuts from the state," added Spadafore, who was recently elected to serve on the Lansing Board of Education.

Around the state and throughout the K-12 experience, librarians and media specialists are blending traditional, book-centric assistance with the newer technologies students are already using. In the lower grades, librarians help introduce students to reading on their own, select appropriate and interesting books for them and encourage reading.

By middle school, they are teaching students about how to do research – beyond Wikipedia and toward accurate, authoritative, verifiable sources. In high school, the research support continues, along with helping students discover the broad range of fictional genres and non-fictional books that allow them to enhance their reading and comprehension skills as well as their knowledge bases about academic subjects.

School librarians and media specialists everywhere are trying to shelve public misconceptions that they have less relevance and usefulness in the "Electronic Information Age."

“Some people ‘get’ what we do,” said Allison Bosshart, the junior high library-teacher in Holt. “Others think we are overpaid book-shelvers.”

Bosshart has seen plenty of students who can’t maximize the use of their electronics and computers. One boy, she recalled, could only use the alarm clock on his iPhone. “We assume that because our students are holding the latest and greatest technology that they know how to use it,” she said. “But they need teachers to show them.”

Bosshart believes teaching students how to productively use technology is one of the most important functions of the 21st century librarian. She uses to demonstrate.

“Students will look at this page and tell me that the tree octopus is real,” Bosshart said. “More than ever, they need a teacher guiding them through cyberspace and teaching them how to decipher if a site is legitimate or not.”

Districts are doing their best to balance the need for learning support with the realities of current budgets. Kate Hass is the only librarian for all 800 students in the Ubly district in Michigan’s Thumb. She calls her space “crammed,” but makes it work for book holdings and the computer lab where high school students take online elective courses. Hass also teaches an elective in library work.

While the solo library employee, she still considers herself lucky. “Even with the funding cuts, they’ve managed to keep almost all of my budget at the funding level it was before the financial problems started,” she noted.

Holt is using a partnership with the community library to share resources. As part of the junior high library “curriculum,” students get library cards for the Capital Area District Library that allow them to check out e-books, too. She sees that as part of her duty to teach reading as a life-long activity to embrace, as well as an academic skill. “I think we would be remiss in completely ignoring the electronic piece of reading that’s going on right now,” Asch says.

In Carson City, between Mount Pleasant and Grand Rapids, Wendy Moncada is tackling the funding shortfall from the other end. She runs a read-a-thon that also acts as a fundraiser for the media center.

She blends reading, research and other activities into a themed, month-long event that helps build enthusiasm. It raises a few hundred dollars, but the read-a-thon’s main purpose remains true to library’s academic mission.

“It’s so the kids get excited about reading,” Moncada said.

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