Needs greatest in urban districts; resources lowest

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Needs greatest in urban districts; resources lowest

Voice: July 2017 

Regardless of a school district’s demographics, libraries are a key component to student learning and achievement.

But the need is perhaps most pronounced in urban districts, where many students don’t have access to resources and technology at home. Unfortunately, these districts with large student populations also tend to be the lowest staffed and lowest funded, and their resources are antiquated.

In the Philadelphia School District, a recent story called school librarians there a “species nearly extinct.’’ One of the nation’s largest school systems with 134,000 students and 220 schools, the district has only eight full-time certified librarians.

The Erie School District has only two librarians for 18 schools with 11,500 students – 80 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged and 58 percent of whom are non-white.

The situation in urban districts is unfathomable to Shawn Kerbein, librarian for three elementary schools in the Allentown School District, Lehigh County. She knows how difficult it is, and how shortchanged students are in Allentown with 11 librarians covering 22 buildings for nearly 18,000 students.

Those librarians, she said, “aren’t doing library stuff. There is no time for hands-on work with students.’’

Kerbein once was the librarian at just one school, a situation that allowed her to do so much with students and teachers.

Now, over the course of the district’s eight-day cycle, Kerbein deals with more than 1,200 kids. At one elementary school alone, she has 29 classes that take her five days to get to.

Teachers, she notes, also need assistance from librarians in knowing what is available for students, and having someone who can teach students how to use the resources properly.

“You need someone there to say, ‘this is how it’s done.’ You can’t Google everything,’’ Kerbein said. “Teachers are not taught how to teach research and how to use the library. They are taught how to teach kids reading, they are taught how to teach kids math … Teachers and librarians each have specialized skills.’’

Kerbein, who is a member of the Allentown EA executive board, said the library system in Allentown has been the first to feel the budget knife in recent years. Sometimes, she said, even money that is allocated for libraries is taken away and used for other purposes.

“The average age of my nonfiction section is 1975,’’ Kerbein said. “We have old books that are falling apart, that are being held together with a wish and a prayer.’’

She points to research showing that one certified librarian in a school can raise those students’ standardized test scores by as much as 15 points.

“Politicians are hollering about test scores – ‘our kids can’t do math, our kids can’t read,’’’ Kerbein said. “So why do you cut libraries and librarians?’’