ESSA and the critical value of school libraries

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By Steve Zalusky

The school library is the hub of the school, offering students open and equitable access to information as well as a supportive and inclusive space for learning and social interaction.

School libraries help prepare students for a lifetime of learning, with research showing that effective school library programs having a beneficial effect on student performance, including improved reading test scores.  The value of school librarians was given a major affirmation on Dec. 10, 2015, when President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the act, which was approved with bipartisan support, reauthorizes the 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which confirms our nation’s commitment to equal opportunity for all students.

What is significant for librarians is the provisions regarding school libraries and librarians, which the bill recognizes as critical education partners.

Leslie Preddy, then-president of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), said, “For school-age students, ESSA represents an historic new chapter in federal support of education, one that will ensure effective school library programs are there to help them learn how to use new technology tools, develop critical thinking, and the reading and research skills essential to achievement in science, math and all other ‘STEM’ fields.”

According to the American Library Association’s District Dispatch blog, the bill authorizes the Innovative Approaches to Literacy program that allows the education secretary to “award grants, contracts, or cooperative agreements, on a competitive basis” to promote literacy programs in low-income areas, including “developing and enhancing effective school library programs.”

In addition, states and districts can also use Title II funds for “supporting the instructional services provided by effective school library programs,” while local education agencies can assist schools in developing effective school library programs, in part to help students gain digital skills.

Now that federal legislation is in place, school librarians are working on the state and local level to “unpack” the legislation. School librarians and educational stakeholders throughout the country are attending workshops dedicated to unpacking the provisions for school libraries in the act.

Presented by AASL in conjunction with the ALA Office for Library Advocacy and the ALA Washington Office, the workshops are part of an outreach effort to AASL state affiliates to highlight opportunities within ESSA language for school librarians and school libraries to be addressed in state and local plans. AASL estimates the ESSA workshops will reach 1,500 stakeholders nationwide.

The efforts on the state and local levels has energized school librarians, among them Devona  Pendergrass with the Mountain Home Public Schools in Arkansas.

She has worked at Mountain Home since 1985, wearing a number of hats, including 6th- and 7th-grade social studies teacher, bus driver, bowling coach, kindergarten librarian and, since 2000, the high school librarian and department head.

She is responsible for the district's library programming, staff training and online catalog software.  She said she has a sign on her desk that reads, “find a job you love and you will never work another day in your life.”

Pendergrass said, “We’re in a rural area in Northern Arkansas and we’re about three and a half or four hours from any major city. So our library is really important to the kids. We’re the center of the whole school.”

The library, which was built about six years ago, includes two computer labs, as well as a color printer that is the only machine the students can use to print their papers.  In addition, she said, “I also test all the students’ Lexile levels so the teachers know what reading levels they are at.”

Her library is also a fun place to visit – it has seen rock bands, talent shows and book and poetry readings.  Pendergrass is active with AASL. At the time ESSA began, she was board representative to the ASSL Supervisors Section.

“I thought it was something we could not pass up, because I remember many years ago, we had ESEA and we used to get books and funding. This is a chance that the librarians can actually be listed as teachers in this formula,” she said.

On June 3, she was one of the AASL leaders who met virtually with Dr. Monique Chism, deputy assistant secretary from the U.S. Department of Education (USED), Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. This one-hour “listening session” was devoted to the relationship between school librarians and the ESSA. The USED will take this information into account as it provides guidance on Title IV, Part A - Student Support and Academic Enrichments Grants.

She said she recently took part in an ESSA workshop for Arkansas. The result was a state plan that would be handed to a representative of the Arkansas Department of Education.

“I was proud to be a member of ALA and AASL, because ALA sees the importance of school libraries. I was so proud that ALA jumped on the wagon and put their money where their mouth was. And I couldn’t be more proud of how hard they have worked to help us get to where we are.”

More work lies ahead for school libraries in securing the funding to support ESSA.

Sedley Abercrombie, lead library media coordinator, Davidson County (North Carolina) Schools, said, “Last year when ESSA was reauthorized, I was excited to learn that school libraries had been included in the language for the first time ever.  I really felt like this would be a game changer for federal support of school libraries. 

But Abercrombie added, “However, the more I have learned about ESSA, the more I have realized that there are many, many stakeholders competing for this money.  Funding isn't going to be a sure thing for anyone.  It will take lots of advocating on behalf school libraries at the state and local levels to make sure that school libraries will benefit from these funds.”

She added that at this point, it is too early to know what ESSA will mean for each school. 

“From what I understand, the money will be distributed by the state, but it will be up to local governments to decide how that money is spent.  This just solidifies my argument that just being included in the language isn't enough.  We have to advocate for our programs and show our district leaders the impact school libraries can make and how we can best impact student achievement with additional funding.” 

Your voice matters. Learn more about how to help ensure your district has strong school library programs with certified school librarians.

(Image courtesy of American Libraries)