(Yes, I really mailed this - on July 10, 2010)
Paul McCartney recently remarked on how nice it is that we now have a president who actually knows what a library is. Truthfully, I don’t think there are many politicians out there who do understand the importance of libraries and, Mr. President, if you don’t act soon, this next generation of students won’t either.
For the past twenty three years I have been the media specialist/school librarian at New Palestine High School in Indiana. This past April I was RIFFED – told my contract would not be renewed. There was no severance package for me, no golden parachute. In fact, less than one month after the last day of school, I lost my health, dental, vision and life insurance. Sure, I’m eligible for COBRA, but that costs almost as much per month as I will receive in unemployment benefits. As a single parent, I simply can not afford it. I also learned that that, due to lack of funding, there is currently no state health insurance programs available for me or my youngest, who is nineteen. Despite the passage of the new health care legislation you lobbied so hard for last fall (and which I urged my congressmen to support) change hasn’t happened fast enough to help my little family.
I believe my situation is indicative of an even greater issue. Our country does not adequately support those who work in public education, nor do we recognize their importance. Our government was quick to “bail out” the banks and the auto companies when they faltered. Why not public education? Our Senate extended unemployment benefits and offered Cobra subsidies for those who previously lost jobs (primarily in the private sector.) Why is it that when public schools are laying off record numbers of employees law makers (primarily Republicans) suddenly refuse to approve more jobless aid, saying they don’t want to add to the national debt?
Last summer our Indiana’s state government made major cuts to higher education grants – just as my daughter headed off to her first year of college. Then, this past winter, Mitch Daniels abruptly slashed funding for education, citing declining tax revenues. Many Indiana school corporations have been forced to RIF educators and make “creative staffing” choices that are definitely NOT in our students best interests. Others have looked for alternative means of funding such as local referendums. In all cases valuable time is wasted on budgetary rather than educational concerns. Everyone – from the lunch ladies to teachers to students - is so focused on the money problem that we’ve stopped focusing on the education problem.
Where I worked, we lost support staff first – secretaries, custodians, my library assistant – that was rough but it didn’t stop there. Next came the teacher RIFs and “creative staffing” necessary to stretch dollars. In my case, it seemed that Indiana only legally requires one licensed librarian per school district and we had three. Next year our high school media center will get the librarian with the most seniority while the other five will make do with assistants. This kind of “creative staffing” is happening all over Indiana but school librarians are being especially hard hit because, let’s face it, we just aren’t very important and it certainly doesn’t take someone with a college degree to check out books, right? Better to RIF the school librarians than the REAL teachers.
For many young people their first and often only exposure to libraries is at school. Here they discover there is a place they can go to and get all kinds of information, not just the stuff the teacher expects them to know for the tests. We need to make sure that the person supplying our children with this information has been specifically educated to do so. My library science degree served me well twenty years ago when I inherited a musty old book collection that desperately needed its outdated titles removed from the shelves, while preserving lesser known classics like Indiana’s own The Magnificent Ambersons.
Over the years, even as my budget shrunk, I slowly updated the collection with fresh new works that got our kids excited about reading again. I collaborated with teachers, tracked research projects, read book reviews and took note every time I was forced to tell a student “you’ll have to go to a bigger library for a book on that topic.” I agonized over every book I removed from the collection, but knew that outdated information could sometimes be worse than no information. During the time I was at NPHS, print circulation more than tripled. Don’t tell me kids today don’t read books!
Still, the best school libraries are also centers for the newest information technologies. Starting 20 years ago with a modem and a dial up connection, I have first learned from and later taught my students the best ways to do research using the Internet. I’ve answered questions on everything from how to use Word to type a bibliography to how to scan photos into a PowerPoint presentation. This year my pet project was to introduce the students to the new Flip Cameras so they could begin taping and editing their own video projects. I AM a REAL teacher, Mr. President, and my students need me. Just as they need the P.E. and music teachers that were also RIFFED this spring. Just as our children need the endangered teachers of all those areas still at risk because there’s not a mandatory state standardized test covering those lessons.
There are some people out there, particularly in my neck of the woods, that seem to think that schools are getting what they deserve, that we’ve thrown too much money at failing schools and poor teachers for too long. I agree that some school systems are ineffective, some may have misspent or wasted public funds and yes, there are bad teachers out there but, at least here in Indiana, we are cutting funds to all our schools and forcing even the best to make cuts we will all someday regret. As a parent I have always wanted the best for my children and I have found that usually the best costs more. If we as a nation want the best education for our youth, doesn’t it follow that we might need to be spending more, rather than less on our schools and the people who staff them?
When your Secretary of Education spoke recently to members of the American Association of School Librarians he acknowledged that libraries are often “at the heart” of school success stories and said, “We want our money to follow your successes.” With a loss of over 70 school librarian positions in Indiana last spring, along with unknown numbers of support staff, how are we to continue these successes? New Palestine High School made Newsweek Magazine's 2010 list of America's Best High Schools with a both full time licensed media specialist and a full time library assistant contributing to that success. Nonetheless, both of us still lost our jobs.
Please, Mr. President, you are my last hope. You showed everyone how important you believed changing health care was last fall and you were successful. Now I’m asking you to stand up for our children and demonstrate your support of our public school employees. Forget the teacher unions and associations – you, Mr. President, should be our strongest advocate. Tell the public you still believe in those of us in education – lunch ladies, teachers, counselors, assistants, librarians, secretaries, custodians – whose greatest success stories can be seen in their students small every day successes rather than a random day’s test score.
When I think of my successes, I think of Nikki, who hugged me because she got an A on her term paper and said she never could have done it without my help. I think of Joseph, a student with Asperger’s, who initially drove us crazy by constantly asking “Do you have any books on …(insert any obscure topic here) until we finally taught him how to use the online card catalog effectively. Or I think of Jeff, the computer wiz, who initially came to the media center to play on the computers and ended up fixing them. Now he has his own computer repair shop. Please do whatever you can, Mr. President, to convince Congress they need to provide more support to those in public education. Then perhaps we can all get back to focusing on what is really important - our students, our future.