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School Libraries Shelved Amid Neglect

Education: Computers take priority over books in budgets statewide. However, outlook is improving.

April 21, 1996|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

The familiar oak card catalog in the Heninger School library gleams from countless polishings. Brightly colored posters extol reading's joys. An American flag hangs in a corner. Tot-size chairs are arrayed in a cozy reading circle.

But the Heninger library, like many across California, is more of a museum than a valuable instructional resource.

The books were salvaged from a demolished school and include 40-year-old volumes preserving the hope that people might one day tread on the moon. The facts in the "Book of Amazing Facts," copyright 1950, are not so amazing to children born four decades later. Thinking they'd be valuable if sold as antiques, an enterprising clerk tagged the oldest books, but they are still there to keep the shelves looking full. Even worse, fewer than one in 10 of the library's books is in Spanish, a language spoken by 98% of Heninger's students at home.

California's dubious distinction of having reading test scores that are among the very worst in the nation has been widely publicized. Less well known is a fact that many believe is related: The state's school libraries are among the most-neglected in the United States, according to the American Library Assn., and have failed to keep up with fast-moving demographic and instructional changes.

Santa Ana district librarian Doris Weakly, who oversees library services for 35,000 students, said the district has not budgeted money for libraries for the past four years. Even though the library remains open at Heninger, teachers don't use it much.

"There's nothing they can depend on, so the teachers can't assign topics and have the students use multiple sources" to research them, Weakly said. "It's a real tragedy because it's not supporting the curriculum and that impacts the classroom."

Fewer than one-third of California schools has a trained librarian, and the per-pupil book budget at the average public high school is half what it is at some California Youth Authority detention facilities. The average school library has about 13 books per pupil, compared to a national average of about 18 or more. As many as 85% of the nonfiction books are more than 20 years old.

The problem is not new. California always has depended on local school districts' whims to fund its libraries and, unlike other states, never has set minimum standards. But five years ago, the quality of school libraries worsened dramatically when Los Angeles and school districts across the state--faced with recession-squeezed budgets--slashed book purchases, closed libraries and laid off hundreds of librarians in elementary and junior high schools.

Now, however, the school financial picture is brightening. But rather than restocking library shelves, most schools are spending more to jump on the computer bandwagon. This year, California schools received about $1,500 per classroom just for one-time purchases. And according to one survey, nearly 80% of the districts spent that money on computer technology.

"You can't use the technology unless you can read, and the way you learn to read is not from a screen, it's real reading," said Barbara Jeffus, a state Department of Education school library consultant.

A growing body of research shows that well-stocked and professionally staffed school libraries are fundamental to learning, instilling in students a love of literature, as well as providing them opportunities to go beyond textbooks and explore topics independently.

Yet California supports its libraries--now known in educational parlance as library media centers--the same way it pays for playground equipment, relying largely on charitable grants, PTA bake sales and penny drives to stock the shelves and on volunteers to check out books.

The result is "miseducation of children in one of the wealthiest states in one of the wealthiest countries in the world," state schools chief Delaine Eastin said when she visited Heninger last year.

Still, Heninger is better off than many schools. Many have no library at all. And at least Heninger employs a part-time aide to check out and reshelve books; at many schools, students are not allowed to take books home because there is no system for making sure they are returned.

Also, Heninger received $5,000 this year from a grant program to which taxpayers can donate when they file their state income tax. The school is one of 218 in the state--out of 2,500 that applied--to receive the grants, and Heninger is using the money to expand its holdings of Spanish-language books and magazines.

The donation program, which resulted from legislation Eastin co-sponsored when she was in the Assembly, has generated more than $500,000 for school libraries. Eastin kicked in an equal amount from discretionary funds she administers.

That amount is all that comes from Sacramento to directly support library programs.

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