What libraries give to students speaks volumes

Posted: November 27, 2012

FIVE YEARS AGO, MaST Community Charter School had a decent library that housed a small collection of books and a few computers.

Parents, teachers and school leaders decided that that wasn't sufficient to help all the kindergarten through 12th grade MaST students learn and grow. So we did our research. We conducted surveys. We talked to school-library experts. We looked at what other school libraries had done. We looked at what was happening in other towns.

Ultimately, we presented a plan to our school's board that called for increasing professional library staffing levels, improving student access to the library, aligning curriculum with the PA Common Core Standards, dedicating annual funding to provide a quality collection, investigating sources of outside grant funding, engaging parents in volunteering, improving digital resources and redesigning the space.

Today, the MaST School Library and Media Center is a state-of-the-art information hub and the heart of our school. Thanks in large part to that collaboration of parents, teachers, students and administrators, the library media center is quickly becoming a world-class space that houses a program managed by certified staffing to support the needs of 21st-century learners.

But: Why the library? Weren't there other needs?

A recent study from the Education Law Center and the Pennsylvania School Library Project - "Creating 21st-Century Learners: A Report on Pennsylvania's Public School Libraries" - shows that students who have access to a quality school library program have a clear academic advantage over students who do not.

The report looks at five areas that define a quality school library program: staffing, collections, technology, library access, and funding. The findings show that:

* Students with access to a full-time, certified librarian score higher on the state's Pennsylvania System of School Assessment Reading and Writing tests than students without that access.

* Students who have access to a library with a robust and current collection of books have higher scores on both the PSSA reading and writing tests.

*  Computers and digital resources - databases, web-based tools, e-books, e-readers, applications and social media - are core components needed to develop successful 21st-century learners. Reading and writing PSSA test scores are higher when technology is available and integrated into student learning.

*  Flexible scheduling that allows a library to be open before, during and after school provides access to the library and its resources and allows students to master the school's curriculum.

* Finally, the research findings show that as the investment in staffing, collection and technology resources increases, the rate of student achievement accelerates.

Clearly, school libraries are critical to student achievement and success. Yet, throughout Pennsylvania, and especially in Philadelphia, many kindergarten through 12th-grade students do not have the opportunities to learn from a certified librarian or have access to a well-stocked library. There are currently only 15 certified librarians serving in Philadelphia's 192 middle and elementary schools. That means that the majority of Philadelphia public-school students enter high school without ever having access to a certified school librarian.

In our information-saturated age, a school librarian is vital. They help students evaluate and become sophisticated users of information, they teach research skills, integrate technology into learning, collaborate with teachers and foster an enthusiasm for lifelong reading and learning.

Parents and community stakeholders must address the need for sufficient public funds to sustain quality school-library programs by speaking with elected officials at the state and local level. It is time for our policymakers to prioritize investment in student achievement and success through investment in school libraries.

But our elected officials cannot act alone. While statewide school library standards are critical - currently Pennsylvania mandates a library in its prisons but not in its public schools! - local leaders need to act.

School-district leaders need to create a culture that supports and funds our school libraries. And principals need to truly understand the value and connection to achievement that school libraries bring to the table, especially in schools that haven't had a library program, and whose library doors had been closed for years.

If district leaders and principals get it, then they'll make the necessary choices and invest in school library programs.

Creating 21st-century learners is the key to moving education forward and creating equal access and a level playing field for Pennsylvania's students. Like our work at MaST, we need a team effort.

Karen D. Lash is a Philadelphia-based parent/school and public-library advocate

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