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Behind student success, an LAUSD librarian

Rosemarie Bernier, an LAUSD teacher-librarian facing layoff, teaches students to go beyond textbooks and "learn to stand on the shoulders of the great scientists, philosophers and mathematicians."

May 20, 2011|Hector Tobar
  • Just days after asking Hamilton High teacher-librarian Rosemarie Bernier, right, for a book on origami, Jose Frank Tejada, 17, is folding the most difficult designs in the book.
Just days after asking Hamilton High teacher-librarian Rosemarie Bernier,… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

Rosemarie Bernier, the librarian at Hamilton High School, sees hundreds of students every day. She knows them by their study habits, the questions they ask and the books they read.

Joelle and Johanna love to run their fingers through old books. We find them in the stacks, admiring the beautiful, old binding of a Jules Verne novel.

Another group of "regulars" gathers at a table. Nahum and Livingston leaf through sheets of sample calculus problems, while Antonio reads the final chapters of Toni Morrison's great novel "Song of Solomon."

Many of them know Bernier's job is in jeopardy. So they line up to tell me all the things she does for them. How she helps run an Advance Placement psychology class. How she's guided them through subjects as diverse as Tunisian history, World War II and stem-cell research.

"You're really lucky if you meet a good librarian because they teach you how to succeed," says Sarah Robinson, 16. "I know I'm going to remember Mrs. Bernier for the rest of my life."

Bernier, who has been on the job at Hamilton, in Palms, since 1997, is a credentialed teacher and a credentialed librarian. In March, she and 85 other Los Angeles Unified School District teacher-librarians got pink slips as part of the district's budget cutting.

To get them off the payroll, the district is arguing that librarians don't teach and thus don't qualify for the seniority protections given to teachers.

My visit to Bernier's domain made it clear to me how false and illogical this argument really is.

Bernier prepares students to think like scholars. She teaches them how and where information is collected so they can begin to sift through the vast stores of knowledge to be found outside the classroom.

"Their teachers tell them they have to look for information that isn't in their textbooks," Bernier told me as we sat in her office, surrounded by stacks of soon-to-be-shelved books. "So they come to me."

Sometimes Bernier points her students to one of the 30,000 books in the school's collection. More often, she directs them to the library's computer terminals. Back when she started, Bernier had a single computer. "It had a dial-up modem, and didn't work most of the time." Now she has 67.

"A lot of kids don't have any idea what the Internet is," she told me, by which she meant they don't know all the ways all those pages get on the Web and which ones they can trust.

Librarians are the original information aggregators. It's a job they've been doing since ancient times, from scrolls and parchment to virtual books and digital databases.

Part of Bernier's job is to teach "digital literacy." In fact, she helped write the state standards for digital literacy for high school students.

She's also past president of the California School Library Assn. and a National Board Certified teacher.

"She's a giant in our profession," said John Hamrick, librarian at Robert Fulton College Preparatory, a middle school in Van Nuys.

Even so, this month Bernier was one of dozens of librarians summoned to the basement of a downtown building to defend herself and her profession at a makeshift LAUSD courtroom. She was questioned by school-district attorneys who were attempting to prove that teacher-librarians are not teachers.

"To watch her up there being badgered, with the lawyers questioning whether she was really qualified, really made us all angry," said Hamrick, not long before he too was called to the stand for questioning.

Last week, when I described the inquisition to which the librarians were being subjected — and said most of the district's middle-school and high-school libraries would probably be closed — many readers were outraged.

But a minority questioned if we even needed school libraries in this day and age, when Wikipedia and Google appear to have all the answers.

"They'd have us learning the Dewey decimal system when everyone today has the world's libraries at their fingertips instantly," one reader wrote.

It's not so simple, says Bernier, who has seen all the many ways students can get tangled up when they go to the Internet without guidance.

They might print out a 97-page document, for instance, to retrieve the information contained in a single paragraph. Or sit at a keyboard with a website address provided by a teacher that's so long they can never type it correctly into a browser.

A surprisingly large number of students don't have home Internet access. Bernier gives them their first email addresses, has them sign the district's computer-use policy, and tells them: "You're in the club now. You can come and use it anytime you want."

Her message to them about the Internet is twofold: Just about any question can be answered on it, but the answer you find won't necessarily be true.

"They have no notion of what bias is," she told me. "They have to learn to think for themselves, to research, to synthesize from many sources of information."

Every day, Bernier passes on to her students the traditions upon which a scholarly life is based.

"The idea is to help them get the information they need to put their ideas in their own words," Bernier said. "They learn to stand on the shoulders of the great scientists, philosophers and mathematicians."

How much is that worth? It's priceless if you ask me. And the future cost of doing away with these outposts of civilization and thought is also beyond measure.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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