It takes a village to run Torrance Elementary School Libraries
By: Rob Kuznia, Staff Writer & Sean Hiller, Staff Photographer
Reprinted courtesy of: Daily Breeze
In an instant, the library at Lincoln Elementary in Torrance went from calm to semi-chaotic as the students of a first-grade class spilled in for their weekly visit.
In a 30-minute flurry of activity, the kids sought help from the three women in the library to locate, check out and return books - as well as to settle up on any nickel-a-day late fees they might have owed.
At one point, a little boy looking for a book about grasshoppers grabbed the hand of a library lady named Amy Ota as she was helping another student.
"Hi Mom," he said.
She turned around and smiled.
"Hi sweet pea."
In the Torrance Unified School District, it takes a village to run an elementary school library.
For decades, all of the libraries in the district's 17 grammar schools have been entirely operated by parent volunteers.
It's a unique setup. Although tough economic times have left most area school districts bereft of the full-on certificated librarians who operate on the same plane as classroom teachers, the vast majority in the South Bay still employ technicians or special-projects teachers to run their elementary school libraries. (Library technicians also run the show in the middle and high schools of Torrance Unified.)
Contrary to what most might think, the grass-roots library system in Torrance's elementary schools isn't the product of the latest statewide budget crisis. Rather, it's a tradition that began more than 20 years ago in Torrance, when the libraries of most elementary schools in the district were boarded up - victims, perhaps, of that era's great recession.
At the time, Torrance school board member Terry Ragins was a PTA member at Yukon Elementary. She was among the first group of parents to breathe life back into the mothballed libraries.
"This was an area where (the PTA) saw a dire need and came forth and said, 'This is a void that we can fill,' she said. “They’ve filled it so ably over the last 20 years that we've never revisited it."
Perhaps because the libraries were closed, the district was able to get around a law prohibiting paid employees from being supplanted by volunteers. If the jobs didn't exist at the time the volunteers started doing the work, then paid employees were not technically replaced.
It's a distinction that makes Mario Di Leva, executive director of the Torrance teachers union, a little uneasy.
"We totally value volunteers, parent volunteers and community volunteers, and only want that to continue," he said. "However, we need to define those roles when it crosses into the gray zone of doing unit work.”
He added: "If all of a sudden you have all the neighborhood dads mowing (school) lawns on Saturdays, it would put some people out of work, and there would be no guarantee the lawns will be mowed.”
It is perhaps for this reason that many of the elementary school libraries in the Los Angeles Unified School District are unmanned. There, the last wave of budget cuts swept away the technicians
Student artwork is on display at the Lincoln Elementary School Library. In all but a fraction of the elementary schools, said LAUSD spokeswoman Gayle Pollard-Terry.
She added that the law precluding volunteers from supplanting those jobs prohibits parent volunteers from assuming those duties. Rather, that work is performed by the classroom teachers who take their classes to the library.
In Manhattan Beach Unified, the district has been blessed to have a mighty fundraising arm in the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation, which provides funding for paid media specialists to serve in school libraries. Those specialists also manage small crews of volunteers.
District spokeswoman Carolyn Seaton said there are educational benefits to having a paid staff member who can give the children a kind of customized library experience. She specifically mentioned such a specialist in Manhattan Beach who makes a point to know the main interests and reading levels of each child, so as to better pair them with a book accordingly.
"When students develop love affairs with particular genres or authors, it influences their ability to read and write," she said.
At Lincoln Elementary in Torrance, parents even did much of the grunt work involved with a library renovation a couple of years ago. (The project was bankrolled largely by the school's corporate partner, Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center.)
Ota said she climbed a ladder and helped repaint the walls, which were once a bleak brown and are now a sunny yellow. She also went around town comparing notes on pricing for carpet. The school eventually went with a vendor who lived down the block. "It wasn't very inviting," she said of the old library. "It was really kind of dirty and neglected."
Ota says she was happy to do the work, inspired in no small part by a principal she admires.
"She makes you want to do more for the school," Ota said of Katherine Castleberry.
Some library volunteers wouldn't stop coming if you paid them to. Laura Hamano's three children all are in their 20s, but she still shows up to the Lincoln Elementary library every day to perform her duties.
"It's fun, and I get to know the kids," she said after the students had left on a recent morning, while checking in a stack of the books they'd left behind: "Cinderella," "Aladdin," "Monster Trucks," "Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”
She also enjoys watching them grow up, through their elementary years and well after, seeing as how she occasionally bumps into a former student in a grocery store or other public place.
"Sometimes they come over and say, 'Oh, Mrs. Hamano - you remember me?'” She said, "and they look totally different, since they are in high school.”