Hartford Courant opinion piece urges support for school libraries

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As the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), a division of the American Library Association (ALA), prepares to hold its 16th National Conference & Exhibition, themed “Rising to the Challenge,” Nov. 14-17 in Hartford, Conn., a strong opinion piece has appeared in the Hartford Courant urging the support of school libraries.

The newspaper ran a portion of the piece, co-authored by AASL President Gail Dickinson (right) and Mary Ellen Minichiello, the president of the Connecticut Association of School Librarians and a library media specialist at Calf Pen Meadow Elementary School in Milford.

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Here is the entire piece:

Hartford school libraries deserve our support

By Gail Dickinson and Mary Ellen Minichiello

As part of the 1996 court case, Sheff vs. O’Neill, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the State of Connecticut must provide equal education to all students. Yet, in 2013, only a minority of Hartford’s nearly 26,000 students have access to one of the most valuable resources a school can offer – a certified school librarian in a strong school library program.

School libraries are places of endless opportunity. They provide literacy resources that empower students to better their lives through education. Since 1965, more than 60 education and library studies have produced clear evidence that school library programs staffed by qualified school librarians have a positive impact on college and career readiness.

More than 37,000 Hartford community members live in poverty and due to lack of transportation and work schedules many are not able to take their children to local public libraries. In many cases school libraries are the only point of access youth have to technology and information resources. During a school library open house, a local school librarian shared a story about a student who pulled her aside to thank her. It was the first time the student had visited a library and had access to a computer, the Internet and books. “This is a nice place, and I can’t believe it’s all for me,” said the student.

More than just access to library resources, students should have the expertise of a certified school librarian who can help them make sense of the vast amounts of information available digitally and in print. Too often students lack the ability to analyze the information found online and are left guessing what Web content to trust.

According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project Online Survey of Teachers, although the Internet has opened up a vast world of information for today’s students, their digital literacy skills have yet to catch up. Twenty-four percent of those surveyed stated that students lack the ability to assess the quality and accuracy of information they find online. Another 33 percent reported that students lacked the ability to recognize bias in online content.

As schools are adopting more technologies to meet Common Core State Standards, many administrators looking to cut corners hold a false assumption that search engines, Wikipedia and social media are adequate substitutions for the research expertise and the guidance of  a school librarian.

This assumption couldn’t be any further from the truth. More than 30 million students a week rely on the expertise of school librarians to navigate a vast landscape of virtual content, and the efforts of librarians to educate students are recognized by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which recognizes them as teachers whose instruction can be measured to meet standards for professional teaching excellence.

We can’t forget how teachers look to librarians to assist with the development of curriculum. From book selections to addressing advancements in technologies and information gathering, many educators look to school librarians to assist with keeping pace with the academic needs of 21st century students.

A commitment to school library service is evident in several Hartford magnet schools. Students who are selected to attend magnet schools have a greater opportunity to access strong school library programs such as at the Environmental Sciences Magnet School at Mary Hooker. In addition to providing students with access to books and online resources, the librarian teaches digital literacy skills linked to environmental sciences themes by partnering with resident staff scientists.  The library fosters a sense of community and is central to a variety of educational activities for students and their teachers.  The school’s librarian works with students to master essential computer skills and research skills.  For example, students are currently researching plants in the campus greenhouse as part of a library skills lesson.

As the Hartford School District continues to comply with Sheff vs. O’Neill and works to level the educational playing field, it is our hope that administrators consider the valuable role school library programs and librarians play in the academic success of students. We ask that when resource assessments are made, the decision to provide students with critical resources that foster 21st century learning skills – a school library staffed by a certified school librarian – is a priority.

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Gail Dickinson is the president of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), a division of the American Library Association (ALA). Mary Ellen Minichiello is the president of the Connecticut Association of School Librarians and a library media specialist at Calf Pen Meadow Elementary School in Milford, Conn. Both will join more than 4,000 school library professionals at the Connecticut Convention Center for the AASL 16th National Conference & Exhibition, Nov. 14 – 17.  

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