Chicago Public Schools budget cuts are nothing new, and it was hard to be surprised at the announcement in August that funding for more than 900 positions had been cut this year. What’s easy to miss in these continuing cuts is just how quickly important school resources can vanish. The presence of school librarians has been shown to improve everything from standardized test scores and childhood literacy rates to graduation rates and professional development, yet librarians have been disappearing from CPS.
Only 157 librarian positions are budgeted for this school year, to serve a total of 652 elementary and high schools. That number is down from 217 last year, and 454 in 2012. The South and West Sides are being hit particularly hard: according to the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU), in 2015 only two high schools with a ninety percent or higher African-American student population had a school librarian, down from nineteen in 2012.
There are several factors at play in the decrease in librarians. CPS’s already-cramped budget has been cut by $104 million since this time last year. That comes out to a seven percent decrease in the money given for each student. Since 2013, funds have been allocated to schools based on enrollment, putting pressure on any school that loses students. In addition, principals are often forced to cut programs to make up for the lost funding, while making sure their school maintains a positive image to avoid any further drops in enrollment. This can lead to subtle changes in hiring and staffing decisions that hide the cuts that have been made.
Marie Szyman, a longtime school librarian at Nathanael Greene Elementary in McKinley Park, explained that this is part of why it can be so difficult to find out which schools actually have librarians.
“When I talk to people and I tell them how many librarians are left in the city, they’re shocked,” she said. “These parents don’t realize that these libraries have closed down. And they [CPS] did it very quietly, very sneakily.”
The only national attention this trend has received is from a protest staged by students at Bronzeville’s DuSable High School last December, in response to the news that their school librarian, Sara Sayigh, was going to be laid off at the end of that month. The students organized a “read-in,” in which they walked out of classes, checked books out of the school library, and read in the hallways for hours. In response, an anonymous alumni donation helped to fund Sayigh’s position through the end of last school year, and is now completely funding a part-time position for her after CPS removed her position again in the latest round of cuts.
“My students showed that the stereotypes about African-American teenagers are not true,” said Sayigh. “Something that is obvious to those of us who work with them: that they care passionately about their education and they do understand that the system treats them inequitably.”
Regarding the overall cuts that have plagued school libraries and programming for many years, Sayigh recalled how cuts affected the citywide high school book club that had flourished through the early 2000s, and which was previously supported by the district. Annual conferences were held with authors, students, and teachers.
“Just sitting in the auditorium with so many high school readers affirmed the value of what we were doing with our students, and affirmed the value of reading to all those students,” she said. The district, however, cancelled the program after Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office. Only a few schools were able to continue their chapters by scraping together grants and donations.
A related problem is the trend of moving librarians out of the library and into a classroom in an attempt to mitigate increasing class sizes without hiring additional staff. Illinois, like most states, requires school librarians to also be certified teachers. CTU reported that in 2013 fifty-eight librarians were shifted into full-time teaching positions.
Though certified as teachers, school librarians are special, explained Audrey Church, President of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL). “Librarians are master-teachers—most spend time as a teacher before going on to earn master’s degrees,” she said. “Librarians are very effective as classroom teachers, but that position only allows them to impact those students in their class. They aren’t serving that school or those students as effectively as they could as a librarian.”
Marge Fashing, a retired CPS librarian, added that rumors about layoffs were used to scare many librarians into taking classroom positions. One librarian we spoke with was offered a supplemental teaching position. Her principal originally told her that she could continue to serve as the librarian as well, but none of the plans she proposed for keeping her library active were accepted by the principal.
“I didn’t check out a single book last year,” she said. “I mean, I was secretly checking out books, and parents were coming to me after school and I was checking out books to the parents under the students’ names, but I was doing it on my own.”
Again and again, librarians have emphasized that classroom libraries are no replacement for a fully staffed school library. The prescribed reading levels implemented in classroom libraries are particularly worrying: Charles Gunn, President of the Chicago Teacher-Librarian Association (CTLA), explained that principals don’t always understand how having a set of ten books for each level isn’t enough, and can close students off from exploring books.
“These levels are indicators, but it’s a scary world to me where everyone’s got to read a certain book level,” he said. Gunn estimated that a classroom library would be lucky to have 500 titles, whereas a good school library will have around 10,000. Classroom libraries are built around the curriculum’s reading list, while school libraries allow students to browse. Szyman sums up this benefit by describing the moment of a student “walking in and grabbing a book that a teacher would never have handed [them], and going ‘Whoa!’”
Gunn said that teachers and librarians work best together as partners. Teachers bring their classes into the library, where the librarian serves as a resource person and a technical advisor while the teachers guide the lesson. Gunn called it “a beautiful model.”
Numerous studies back this up, emphasizing the importance of the presence of a school librarian and the amount of programming the librarian can offer. Researchers have focused in on things like the priority given to librarian–teacher collaboration, the hours the library is open, and what technical skills are taught in the library. A 2003 study in Illinois found that providing more flexible library hours increased reading scores by ten percent and writing scores by eleven percent on the ISAT. Moreover, programs such as reading workshops were more effective at increasing student performance when led by a librarian instead of a classroom teacher.
This makes sense to Church, who explains how the role of a school librarian has changed over the years. The increasing importance of computer skills and online research databases has made librarians more relevant, not less. School librarians teach their students research skills and digital literacy that may not be achievable at home, especially for students who may not have regular access to a computer. “I think in today’s world, students need a certified school librarian more than ever, because they need to navigate those resources,” said Church. “The information is out there, but students don’t know how to find it efficiently, evaluate what they find, synthesize what they find, and use it ethically and responsibly.”
Gunn speaks of his experiences using teaching technology, with schools buying Chromebooks to help students use Seeking Online Access to Resources (SOAR), CPS’s research portal. Since CPS has Google accounts for everyone, “it’s really just a natural fit. But it’s just a question of if teachers are going to be able to do all that, and really be up to speed and focused. So that’s where in the library we can be a partner.” The same is true for e-books, which can serve to increase students’ access to reading material, but as a resource alone can’t serve as a substitute for individualized book recommendations from a librarian based on their knowledge in finding just the right book for a child.
Disparities in which CPS schools have librarians are all the more alarming in light of these findings. CTU reported that in 2015, seventy-five percent of majority-African-American schools didn’t have a librarian, compared to sixteen percent of schools with a less than fifty percent African-American population. CPS’s own demographic analyses, conducted each year to determine quotas for selective enrollment schools, and defined using census data on socioeconomic status and other factors affecting student achievement, can be used to highlight the systemic disadvantages in library access. Overlaying a map of Tier 1 areas—those that are ranked lowest by CPS in terms of income, average education level, and other factors—and a map of which districts lack librarians, shows that schools in Tier 1 areas are far more likely to lack librarians.
This is a problem Sayigh has seen time and time again.
“We work with students who are bearing the brunt of society’s ills, but they also are expected to just get on with it, take the tests, behave, et cetera,” she said. As Sayigh explained it, the cuts reach beyond just the librarians: “In our schools we no longer have sufficient counselors, social workers, nurses, arts programs, librarians—all of these people, including us, are safety nets for some students. Why does CPS continue to remove vital people from needy children’s lives?”
The impact librarians have on students goes deeper than test scores. Szyman told the story of how a sixth grader came back to her and exclaimed, “Ms. Szyman, I’m reading now! I never read before, until you started reading stories to us, and then I started reading!” All Szyman could say to that was, “Wow.”
In the 1940s, Chicago was the national leader in school library programs. Considering how far the city’s schools have fallen since then, Fashing said, “If you look at all of history, we’re always bemoaning the fact that civilizations have lost libraries and librarians. Who knows how much we have lost?”
Map legend: The color grading begins at the lightest — Tier 1 — and gets darker with each Tier. Clicking on a census tract shows demographic information about the area. Green dots represent CPS high schools with librarians, red dots are those without. Click on a dot to learn more about the school. Special thanks to Open City Apps for their open source Tier visualization and data.