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School Libraries Are Getting Short Shrift

Reading: Elementary schools need well-stocked, full-service libraries to help children become competent readers by age 9.

September 24, 1998|VIRGIL ROBERTS and JACK SHAKELY | Virgil Roberts is chairman of L.A. Annenberg Metropolitan Project, which supports school reform, and vice chairman of the California Community Foundation, which makes grants to support education, health and neighborhoods. Jack Shakely is president of the foundation

Few skills in education are as central to learning as reading, and no stone must be left unturned in the search for ways to improve reading achievement. Not only must the Los Angeles Unified School District continue its work to rectify textbook shortages, it must also focus special attention on libraries in elementary schools, which have suffered greatly in cash-poor times.

The Schoolbook Partners Action Committee, organized by the California Community Foundation, recently concluded a solution-focused study that began as a review of LAUSD textbook shortages. These shortfalls afflicted high schools and middle schools with special severity in the last school year, although some steps have been taken to alleviate the situation.

But things are worse in the lower grades. The committee's survey of schools, including 35 elementary schools throughout the district, showed that nine schools did not even have libraries, mostly because library space was needed for classrooms after Gov. Pete Wilson provided schools with the means to achieve a 20-to-1 pupil-teacher ratio in grades K-3. While this initiative is laudable, libraries cannot be made to suffer to achieve it.

Among these 35 schools, nearly all did not have an adequate supply of library books, regardless of whether they actually had a library and half of the principals said their needs for library books were even more critical than for textbooks. Also, almost half did not have a librarian, and even those that had them employed them only part-time.

In two of the schools whose libraries had been closed, creative stopgaps had emerged. One principal used a cart to distribute library books from classroom to classroom. Another broke up the former library's book collection and moved the volumes to the rear of individual classrooms on the theory that some library book access is better than none.

But, despite these measures, these and other schools are suffering. Perhaps this is why, when the committee asked principals to rate the effect of the 20-to-1 class ratio campaign, response was mixed: Nearly two-thirds were neutral and a surprising about one-third said it had a negative effect. Just a handful of principals said the reform had a positive effect. Obviously, decimation of libraries was a key concern to the principals.

Although LAUSD Supt. Ruben Zacarias is trying to improve the textbook situation in the district, necessary financial resources are lacking for a similar assault on elementary school library closures and book shortages. The district hopes to find portable replacement buildings for libraries, but this effort has not yet materialized and too many elementary schools lack library facilities during the most formative years in the reading lives of their children.

This situation must change. Every elementary school should have a full-time librarian overseeing libraries that have good collections, learning materials and the latest in Internet and database access. This, of course, would require a major new financial commitment; LAUSD alone has 422 elementary schools. But it must be done.

Fortunately, in the waning days of the recent legislative session in Sacramento, a series of bills passed intended to provide the means to use California lottery money and other funding sources to increase expenditures for textbooks and instructional materials. The legislation also may provide necessary personnel--like librarians--to help make best use of the books and physical materials housed in schools.

In elementary schools, what happens in the classroom is, of course, critically important. But schools need well-stocked, creatively staffed, full-service libraries, as well as in-classroom collections of literature and resource materials, to create and reinforce newly formed reading habits so that children can be competent readers by the time they are 9 years old. There can be no argument and no compromise on this issue.

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