Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

For Katharine Zambon, it’s no secret what guided her sister’s zest for science back in elementary school. The support of the school librarian helped foster her sister’s fixation with the life of Albert Einstein borne out of checking out the physicist’s biography at the school library again and again. Her zeal for science became a passion for medicine. Now a doctor specializing in pulmonary critical care, Zambon’s sister looks at the gift of her school librarian as instrumental in guiding her path. 

Zambon, and the 13 other public witnesses who testified during yesterday’s D.C. Council hearing on the Students’ Right to Read Amendment Act of 2021, wants the same opportunity for her children and the more than 50,000 students across D.C. public schools. Three months into the academic year, 10 out of 36 D.C. public schools who lacked funding for full-time librarians before the start of school still don’t have a librarian. The new bill aims to change that.

“We heard from witnesses today about the issues with recruiting and retaining highly effective librarians in DCPS,” Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George said at yesterday’s hearing. “And one of those reasons is because sometimes their job is on the chopping block every year.”

The bill would expand the Council’s temporary move in August that ensured a full-time librarian for each DCPS school into fiscal year 2023 and beyond. George, who co-introduced the bill along with seven other councilmembers, sought to address disparities between schools that do and don’t have a librarian—the latter are concentrated in wards 7 and 8. A top concern driving the urgency were the differences in literacy level exacerbated by the pandemic. The August amendment, which the Council unanimously approved, moved $3.25 million within the DCPS budget to guarantee a full-time librarian throughout DCPS.

The fight for full-time librarians hasn’t been the easiest task. In 2012, DCPS cut funding allocated for librarians at schools with enrollment under 300, leaving 58 schools librarian-less. In 2019, an under-the-radar DCPS move allowed principals to use funds otherwise allocated to a librarian for other purposes. For schools who kept a part-time librarian on staff, these librarians have been known to shuffle between two different schools to make ends meet.

This was the case at Amidon-Bowen Elementary School in Southwest D.C., parent Grace Hu testified. Hu described how Amidon-Bowen’s staffing demands further impacted its part-time librarian’s ability to do the job. For students to rotate through support services and to free up general education teachers for prep or professional development, the part-time librarian also had to take on the role of specialist teacher, Hu said. This budget shift to reading specialists and other support roles was common among schools who chose to allocate their budget to a non-librarian role, said Amy Maisterra, Deputy Chancellor of Innovation and Systems Improvement at DCPS.

Despite the Council’s August action, 10 schools still lack a librarian, largely due to hiring challenges, according to Maisterra. George and other councilmembers listed some of the ways in which DCPS can address the hiring issue: Assure job security through a “locked” budget allocation for at least one full-time librarian for every DCPS school (something Maisterra said DCPS had already pledged for academic year 2022-2023 without this amendment, to councilmembers’ surprise), provide longer contracts for librarians, and commit to an annual budget for library collections. The city should also invest in supplies and other resources for school libraries so that librarians don’t need to pay out of pocket, said Ellen Armstead, ANC Commissioner of 8D05.

Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen took issue with the $51,000 starting salary for DCPS librarians and newly lowered hiring standards. The position previously required a masters degree in library science, but DCPS is now asking candidates for proof of pursuit of a masters in the field. The change was made to broaden the candidate pool and aid recruitment efforts, said Maisterra. Allen also said $51,000 was low for a professional with a bachelor’s degree, much less a masters, living in D.C. and likely paying off student loans. Maisterra agreed that DCPS should consider a more competitive starting salary.

Maisterra said DCPS is eliminating the requirement that a school have 300 students enrolled in order to qualify for a full-time librarian. When Council Chairman Phil Mendelson asked Maisterra about Washington Teacher Union President Jacqueline Pogue Lyons’ statement that schools with more than 300 students enrolled should have more than one librarian, the DCPS official said it didn’t work like that. Schools with more than one librarian had more than one library or media space at two different campuses, Maisterra said. It’s more a matter of physical space than student enrollment.

All attendees at the hearing agreed on the value of school librarians. Christopher Stewart, a DCPS librarian, read students’ statements on why librarians are important. 

“‘They make me feel welcome and safe,’” Stewart recited. “’They help build community. They give you knowledge, and they also are the person you come to talk to when you feel down. … The library is a safe place for me to connect with books. I can learn new things about myself and educate myself as I accomplish my life and school goals.’”

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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