If books are essential to a good education, why aren’t librarians?

That’s a good problem to have: find out that all of the popular “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” books are checked out from the school library. And luckily for the kids, librarian Mary Chance is good at solutions.

She calls in some of the better-off parents at Hogg Middle School to see if they can provide more copies. She is always thinking about new ways to get her students to love reading, whether that’s brainstorming new ideas for library programming or studying display strategies for the Amazon Books store in the Baybrook Shopping Center to understand how the corporate giant attracts children.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, when schools were closed, Chance ensured her students had an abundance of reading materials at home. She hopped on her bike and cycled through different parks in Houston to meet students and give them books.

Chance is a library evangelist. His original approach is not only a testament to his work ethic – although his job performance earned him the HISD Librarian of the Year award in 2019 – but also a fundamental understanding of the structural and financial challenges for get students to open up. a book first.

“At the end of the day, I want the books to be read, I need this process to begin, and I need to hang them to come back,” Chance told the editorial board. “Then their reading, learning and education are self-actualizing. “

Yet librarians like Chance are increasingly scarce in Houston ISD, Texas’ largest public school district. The Chronicle’s Alejandro Serrano recently reported that the district’s 276 campuses only have 58 certified librarians, a decrease of 77 percent from 25 years ago. Of the 257 libraries in the district, 79 have vacancies, 51 are staffed and 68 are teachers.

Most unstaffed libraries are located in schools where at least 90 percent of the students are considered economically disadvantaged. In other words, the campuses that can least afford to lose a library. The Chronicle reported in 2019 that in at least seven HISD schools that cater primarily to low-income students, the majority of children did not consult a single book in the 2018-19 school year.

Part of the reason for the lack of investment in Houston school libraries is the school district’s decentralized system, which gives principals broad discretion over programming and staffing decisions on each campus. Certified librarians are paid in the same way as a regular teacher. While most Texas school districts view librarians as essential, on par with a nurse or guidance counselor, in Houston firing a librarian is seen as an easy way to save $ 50,000 or more. Redistribute those funds elsewhere, perhaps to hire an education specialist who can focus on preparing students for standardized tests.

It’s a shame and counter-intuitive. A 2015 Washington state study found that the presence of a certified school librarian was a predictor of higher math scores in elementary and middle school. This same study found that a quality library program is what distinguishes high performing and very poor schools from low performing and very poor schools.

Another reason to mourn the loss of librarians has as much to do with the education of adults as it does with children. With Governor Greg Abbott and other Texas politicians targeting school library shelves across the state – by removing or even banning books that deal with race or sexuality – certified school librarians are more than ever before necessary, both for defending the books and also for the painstaking – hopefully led by a librarian – process that led to the selection of the books. And if this painstaking process did not exist, perhaps it was because a librarian was not there to lead it.

Exposure to a rich variety of literature written from different places and perspectives is essential in helping children develop everything from imagination to empathy. Librarians know this. There are few educators more qualified to teach children to think critically and develop information literacy, an understanding of what separates fact from fiction. State lawmakers are concerned that students exposed or forced to read books that make them uncomfortable completely overlook the fact that school librarians are paid to solve this problem by suggesting to students books that balance their own curiosity with material appropriate for their age.

What if, instead of obsessing over book lists, the state redirected that energy to bringing every school library up to state standards – with enough library staff and books, up-to-date collections and budgets for technological improvements? This is what the new superintendent Millard House II has pledged to do in Houston. House included an effort to bring all district libraries up to state standards in its plans for federal COVID-19 relief funds and plans to address the district’s library shortage in its strategic plan.

Even if House were to commit to staffing every school library, he would still have to give those librarians the assurance that these positions would last. Why work in Houston, where a principal can put your work on the chopping block as they please, when you can work in a nearby school district which can offer much more job security?

Before former HISD superintendent Richard Carranza left for New York City, he proposed a change in staffing methods to ensure that all campuses employ a full-time certified librarian. It is an interesting proposition to relaunch. Until Houston begins to treat librarians as essential employees, our city’s school children will not be prepared for an increasingly competitive learning environment.

They have 99 other challenges. A missing librarian does not have to be one.

All students, especially those destined for college, must learn to become effective readers early. They need to access library databases where they can learn research methodology and how to select sources. Students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, also need a gateway to their imagination. The books cultivate the idea that the world is much bigger than the neighborhoods students come home to every day. It is a precious resource worth fighting for. And we should.

About Karren Campbell

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