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Parents' group tries to stop demise of the school librarian

Launches drive to bring positions back from brink

Email|Print| Text size + By Stuart Glascock
Los Angeles Times / December 25, 2007

SEATTLE - As has happened in other states, cash-strapped schools in Washington state are dropping librarians to save money: This year, Federal Way cut 20 librarian positions, Spokane reduced 10 librarians to half time, Darrington cut two librarians, and a school in Marysville eliminated its half-time librarian.

Libraries are open fewer hours; programs have been minimized, jobs combined. In many cases, part-timers with little formal library training are replacing skilled veterans. In rural Pomeroy, a school now employs a combination custodian-librarian - she opens the library after cleaning the locker rooms.

At one school, parents said, enough is enough.

Convinced that children and education suffer when librarians disappear, a loose-knit band of parents in Spokane decided to take action. They launched what has become a statewide campaign to bring school librarians back from the brink.

The parents blasted e-mails to everyone they knew to garner support for an online petition. They posted fliers and leaflets at coffee shops, bookstores, and public libraries. They began an e-mail newsletter and advertised the campaign on online social networking sites. They gave presentations to education professionals and camped out at school board meetings.

As their expenses grew, they sold T-shirts to fund trips to the state capital in Olympia, where they have become fixtures at hearings on school finances.

Earlier this month, they hand-delivered 2,500 signatures to a state government committee that is examining Washington's arcane school-funding system. "We did it to find out if anybody cared," said Lisa Layera Brunkan who along with Susan McBurney started the petition drive. Their children's elementary school was among those affected by the cuts.

"We realized that the school libraries are hemorrhaging, and it was far worse than we ever imagined," said Layera Brunkan.

State legislators, accustomed to professional lobbyists and official representatives of public education's many special interest groups, embraced the parents-turned-activists.

Representative Skip Priest, Republican of Federal Way, was buttonholed by the Spokane parents. The lawmaker sits on the Basic Education Finance Joint Task Force, which will make recommendations for changing education funding to the Legislature next year.

The district that Priest represents axed 20 school librarians this year. Those cuts symbolize the state's school funding crisis, he said, and the task force is searching urgently for solutions.

Nationally, exact figures about school library staffing are elusive, said Nicolle Steffen, director of Library Research Service, a Denver-based agency that collects research and statistics about libraries. But she said unequivocally that schools across the country struggle with library funding.

In Colorado, educators are trying to demonstrate the connection between student achievement and librarians in schools. One achievement test score there notes whether the school has a librarian, Steffen said.

Earlier this year, the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science urged Congress, under the No Child Left Behind Act, to support certified school librarians because of what it describes as the critical link between school library media programs and student achievement.

The number of school library media specialists varies widely from state to state, and district to district, said Julie A. Walker, executive director of American Association of School Librarians. School library funding tends to track overall education funding, she said. South Carolina and Arkansas have the highest percentage of librarians in schools, nearly one per school, because of statewide legislative mandates, and California has the lowest because of the lingering impact, Walker said, of Proposition 13, which lowered property taxes a generation ago.

To stem the loss, the parent group in Spokane hopes to change the way schools value and pay for librarians. In general, they want it written into the education code that school librarians are an essential part of every child's basic education. Local school districts, then, would have fewer options when it comes to making cuts.

Studies across 19 states tie healthy school libraries to student performance, said Marianne Hunter, immediate past president of the Washington Library Association. She credits the "fired-up" parents for traction the issue has garnered in the state.

Layera Brunkan and McBurney, who started the petition drive, both say they feel passionately about the issue. They are active on behalf of their children (each has two) and as role models for them.

But more pressingly, they believe it is a unique time to stand for a worthwhile cause: to get school librarians off the endangered list.

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