When I was student teaching in Denver nine years ago, in the pre-No Child Left Behind years, I visited a talented bilingual literacy teacher at a low-income public school. The teacher and her students inspired me, but what I most remember is the school's library. As I walked through the front door, right in front of me in fact, spilling out into the hallway was the entrance to a beautiful space full of books and plants, tanks of tropical fish, and cozy, pillow-filled spaces to read (including an old English phone booth). I was drawn in. Natural light filtered in through open windows, and lamps and tiny lights strung around the room cast a warm, welcoming glow. Bright kites hung from the rafters over the shelves of science books; near the fairy tales, a potted tree arched over a puppet theater, next to it a row of pillows and a basket of puppets. All of the bookshelves were child-sized, arranged to create intimate spaces for browsing or reading. Interesting objects, like rocks and bones, graced the tops of the bookshelves alongside carefully selected books highlighting each genre. If I was this captivated by the library, what must it be like for the students at this school?
I wandered through this lovely library, enchanted, and noticed it was full of children some with teachers, others clearly on their own all engaged in reading, browsing the shelves, and checking out books. When I spoke with the librarian, I learned he had a previous career as a costume designer in New York. His artistic expression and enthusiasm for stories were gloriously married in this wonderful space. The children, he explained, loved being in the library, and they often spent their lunch recess there. The classroom teacher with whom I spent the day confirmed this: the children at their school loved to read. They also performed well on state reading exams.
I have always carried the memory of that day tucked carefully away, to remind me of the potential of a school library. Stephen Krashen, the preeminent scholar of second language acquisition, has researched and written about the correlation between communities' access to books and the reading proficiency levels of children in schools. In a 2002 Phi Delta Kappan article, Krashen explains, "Research on the impact of libraries over the last decade has shown that better school libraries those with more books and better staffing are associated with greater literacy development." I think now of the Denver school I visited and hope that library is still open, and that the librarian has managed to keep his job. In these bleak NCLB days of regimented, scripted reading programs and financially drained school districts, I am deeply worried about the future of elementary school libraries.
Reading First, the NCLB initiative that ostensibly aims to ensure that all children will read by the end of 3rd grade, certainly does not support the library at my own school in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). Authorized by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2001, Reading First provides schools with money to improve K-3 classroom reading instruction but only through approved "scientific research and standards-based" language arts programs. Reading First grants were awarded to schools that applied. Districts around the country identified schools at risk of not making federally mandated Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and asked these schools to apply for the funds. Some schools democratically voted to seek and then accept the Reading First money; others were forced to accept Reading First by concerned administrators.
When I arrived to teach three years ago at one of San Francisco's so-called "Dream Schools," I noticed a sign on the front of the school boldly proclaiming College Preparatory School, but once inside, I couldn't find the library. Finally, someone unlocked the door for me, and I discovered a small, book-filled space, cluttered and neglected. There was no librarian, nor any system to check books in or out. In fact, the shelves of picture books had been pushed against the wall to make space for parent meetings, groups of children taking tests, or after-school classes. Last year, a voter-approved measure, Proposition H, paid for us to have a librarian one day each week, but it was nearly impossible to check out books because the computer was always broken. Happily, this year we have an enthusiastic new librarian for half of every week, and he is reviving the library space and beginning to teach the children some library skills. For most of this year he used his personal laptop to check out books, but he recently acquired a donated desktop computer.