Erie Schools Hope for New Chapter for Libraries

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A lot has happened in the world of science since 1963.

The first moon landing in 1969, for example.  But for a student in the library at Erie's (PA) Lincoln Elementary School, science might seem to have stalled if he or she ever pulls this book off the shelves:  "The Golden Book of Science," published in 1963.  It is near a book about the universe. That book was published in 1962.

Such outdated tomes are more the norm than the exception at the 17 libraries that serve the Erie School District's 18 schools.

As the district struggles to avoid insolvency, funding cuts have made new books a rarity at the libraries, which circulate a total of 150,000 books a year. The average copyright date for those books, according to the district, is 1993. East High School's collection is the oldest, with an average copyright of 1983. The youngest collection is at Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy, with an average copyright of 2000.

The total annual budget for the Erie School District's libraries is $18,000, or $1,058 per library. By comparison, the Millcreek Township School District budgets $30,000 a year for its 10 libraries, or $3,000 per library.

"In terms of the age of the collection, we are drastically behind," said Jamie Ferrante, one of the Erie School District's two full-time librarians, who travel from school to school.Standing in the library at the 508-student Lincoln Elementary School, where many of the shelves are bare, Ferrante recently displayed book after book that was either outdated or falling apart. Some books are held together with tape.

The history books in Lincoln's library, Ferrante said, are an average of 26 years old, the science books an average of 22 and the sports books an average of 23.  If she culled Lincoln's 8,854-book collection of items that were too old or too damaged, Ferrante said, "half these books would be gone."

A plan for change

The Erie School District hopes to turn the page on the condition of its libraries, just as it is trying to turn the page on its budget crisis.

In its state-mandated financial recovery plan, submitted to the state Department of Education on Tuesday, the district cited its underfunded libraries as one reason the 11,500-student district needs more state aid.

The district is asking for $31.8 million in additional aid a year, a figure that schools Superintendent Jay Badams said is necessary for Erie School District to regain solvency, repair its buildings and provide its students the same quality of resources as their counterparts in more affluent school districts in Erie County. For Badams, the Erie School District's libraries are one example of the depth of the disparity.

Though the Erie School District's libraries get an already meager $18,000 a year, Badams said at a recent School Board meeting, the librarians have been reluctant to spend more than $6,000 because of the budget crunch.

"Our librarians should not be limited to having $6,000 to stack the shelves of our libraries," Badams said.

The Erie School District adds an average of 70 new books a year to its elementary and middle school libraries and an average of 40 to its high school libraries, according to the district's financial recovery plan. The plan states that the national average for new books added to elementary school libraries is 400; middle school libraries, 414; and high school libraries, 421.

The Erie School District is also below the national average for the size of its library collections, according to the financial recovery plan. It states that the average number of titles in the district's elementary school libraries is 9,650, compared with 12,000 nationally; 7,734 for middle school libraries, compared with 13,000 nationally; and for high schools, 12,576, compared with 13,636 nationally.

The shortage of new library books at the Erie School District is most acute in the nonfiction collections, though many fiction selections are outdated, too. A novel never changes, but nonfiction must keep up with the latest happenings in sports, history, science, entertainment and other topics.

"We are doing the kids a disservice because we are not providing them with accurate, up-to-date and reliable material," Ferrante said.

The Erie School District believes that disservice extends to the library staff. The financial recovery plan proposes hiring another 65 employees, at an annual cost of $6 million, to help improve academic achievement and provide more offerings, such as in art and music.The proposal includes an additional two full-time librarians at a total cost of $131,800 a year. The reason for the request, according to the plan, is "to increase literacy achievement."

Under the current system, Ferrante and the district's other full-time librarian, Mary Drapcho, must split their time among all the 18 schools, including Roosevelt Middle School and Central Tech Career & Technical School, which share a building and a library.

The Erie School District uses employees called learning resource assistants to check out library books and help library patrons on a daily basis, but only the two full-time librarians are certified to teach what the financial recovery plan describes as "fundamental library skills, which include location of materials." The two librarians, the report said, "also teach information literacy skills such as research strategies, critical analysis of online information and resource evaluation."

At a time when online resources are ubiquitous, Ferrante said students need more research and library skills. She said they need to learn what online sources are credible and where to go for different types of data.

"We help them manage the glut of information," Ferrante said.

Putting books in the hands of students and immersing them in text provides a more direct experience than using a computer, said Bea Habursky, the Erie School District's assistant superintendent. And a library, she said, "is a place where you really can feel a part of learning."

"That is what makes it harder," Habursky said. "You have new and exciting things happening and new books are out there, but we can only get one or two copies."

Eliminating 'shelf of shame'

Ferrante said she wants the district's libraries to be "the most vibrant place in the school," where students can go to get books that might not be available at home. In the Erie School District, 80 percent of the students are classified as economically disadvantaged, according to the financial recovery plan.

"This the place where they can go to be on a level playing field, where they can use their imagination," Ferrante said. "Despite a lot of kids having phones, and TVs in their rooms, they want to read. If you give them something that interests them, they will gobble it up."

The desire for books was evident at a recent day at Lincoln Elementary School's library, when a fifth-grade class filed in to check out books, read and use the computers for research. A group of students sat on a carpet and quietly paged through books.

Dominick Eckendorf, 10, who said he likes the "Wimpy Kid" series of books, said he would like more new books at the library.

"More books, more reading," he said.

Shark books are among the favorites for Kimonni Davis, also 10, who said he likes to use books for researching topics for school."You don't have to go on the computer," he said. "You have a regular book to look them up."

Ferrante said she would like to have more books to feed the curiosity of the other library visitors. As an example of what she wants to leave behind, Ferrante only had to point to the outdated and dilapidated books on what she calls her "shelf of shame." She held a book with pages falling out.

"It is frustrating. I see their eyes light up, but the only book they want to read is held together by tape," Ferrante said of the students. "It is heartbreaking."