A scarecrow stands guard in the brand new Hill Central School library, greeting students who can’t come inside to browse or borrow books.
The door is locked for a reason: Despite all the money spent on the $46 million new school, it has no librarian to supervise visitors, organize the stacks, or circulate the books.
Hill Central is one of six city schools that still have no librarians seven weeks into the school year. The others are Clinton Avenue, Mauro-Sheridan, Wexler-Grant, Truman and Beecher, according to schools spokeswoman Abbe Smith.
Citing budget concerns, the district did not fill the positions after librarians at those schools resigned, retired, or were laid off.
Another school, Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy, was allowed to replace a departed librarian in late August before the school year began.
Schools Superintendent Reggie Mayo said this week he expects to fill the remaining six vacancies, paying part of the salaries through $3.8 million in state money that is slated for approval by the end of the month.
Without librarians, kids are missing out on a key resource in the school, said one teacher at a bottom-performing Tier III school.
“We have a wonderful library—it’s just sad and empty. It breaks my heart every day,” said the teacher, who declined to give her name for fear of retribution from central office.
“We have so many kids who are dying to take out a book, but they can’t because it is closed.”
A visit to two adjacent elementary schools, one with a librarian and one without, showed a day-and-night difference inside the libraries.
New, Dark & Empty
The brand new library at Hill Central School was dark and empty. Students returned this fall to a new school, but found they can’t use the library yet: The school’s librarian was laid off in February of 2011 and the district never filled the position.
Principal Glen Worthy said he keeps the library locked because no one is there to monitor the room. “I don’t want books to be stolen or lost,” he said.
Teachers have small libraries in their classrooms, but the books in the main library don’t circulate, and no one uses the room, Worthy said. The K-8 school serves 415 students at 140 Dewitt St.
A brand new reading rug, and boxes designed for students to browse age-appropriate reading books, sat untouched.
A computer lab inside the library lay dark, though Worthy said that room does get used.
In the modern era, librarians do more than circulate books. They’re called “library media specialists” because they teach kids technology, staff computer labs, and work with media beyond just print.
Hill Central has a brand new Mac computer lab that came with the $46 million new school. There is no library media specialist to help teachers and students navigate the technology, but Worthy said he makes sure students still use it.
Hill Central, which sits on the bottom-performing Tier III according to district rankings, is entering the third year of a quiet turnaround effort after it was tapped for a $1.59 million federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) targeted at helping the lowest-performing schools in the nation. The effort has been working, according to Worthy: The number of kids scoring “proficient” in reading has climbed from 24 percent in 2008 to over half in 2012.
Worthy said unlocking the library is key to that effort.
Getting a librarian “will mean so much because our whole initiative is improving literacy in the school,” Worthy said.
Computing & Reading
A stone’s throw away, the library at the Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy buzzed with activity Thursday as 1st-graders plundered boxes filled with fiction books.
Clemente, a K-8 school serving 550 kids at 360 Columbus Ave., lost its librarian at the end of last school year to retirement. Like Hill Central, the school is under heavy scrutiny and high expectations for raising student performance: After years of failing test scores, the district last year hired a New Jersey-based charter group called Renaissance Services LLC to run a turnaround effort there, also supported by the federal SIG program.
Principal Pam Franco said after her librarian retired, she made an urgent request to fill the position before the fall. Librarians are an essential part of school, she said.
“We would’ve been dead in the water if we didn’t have one.”
Just before school started, Franco hired Juliet Sullivan (pictured), a former classroom teacher who switched tracks into library science.
Sullivan said she sees each class of students in grades K-6 for 45 minutes a week, giving classroom teachers time for lesson prep during that time. Her library is one of the newest in the city, part of a $45 million new building that opened in the fall of 2010. As with Hill Central, the state-funded school construction project came complete with new technology.
On Thursday afternoon, 1st-graders began their library time taking tests on computers in the school’s computer lab. Computer time is key because starting next academic year, as the state replaces the Connecticut Mastery Test with a new test aligned with the Common Core State Standards, even these little ones will start taking standardized tests on the computer. They’ll have to know how to click and drag text. To that end, Sullivan has been teaching students as young as kindergartners how to use a computer mouse.
As they finished their test, the 1st-graders in Maryann Kowalsky’s class trickled into the library for some independent reading time. Sullivan directed them to a row of kid-height boxes, where books were sorted by reading level.
”Chicka Chicka Boom Boom! I love this book!” declared Orlando Maldonado (at center), who’s 6. He sat down to read next to two friends. Sullivan later saw the book and recommended something more difficult.
“I can’t find a book that’s awesome,” lamented Anthony Pizarro, who’s 5.
“I’ll help you find a book that’s awesome,” replied Sullivan.
Sullivan (pictured) tried to sell him on “Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs,” by Judi Barrett.
Anthony ended up with “Our Raspberry Jam” by David F. Marx, which he sat down at a table to read.
As many as 100 students a day come through her library, Sullivan said. They typically check out between 40 and 80 books a day.
Ms. Kowalsky’s students filed out the door after some furious book-searching and book-swapping, leaving the book boxes disheveled in their wake. Sullivan employed two older student volunteers to help her tidy up the space.
Thursday had been a “non-stop day” in the library, she said.
Principal Franco said Sullivan has played an essential role in the school. In addition to supervising and circulating books, Sullivan teaches students—and teachers—how to use the new “online public access catalog” that replaced the bygone card catalog. Sullivan has created a school website, and is helping teachers create their own.
Without Sullivan, Franco said, “our library wouldn’t get the use that it did.”
Librarians “are just the core of the building,” Franco said. When the vacancy came up, “we were very lucky to be able to fill ours.”
The teacher at the Tier III school questioned the inequality of the situation: Some schools—including top-performing schools like Worthington Hooker—have librarians, while others do not.
“I don’t know what the city is thinking when they let a Tier III school go without a library media specialist,” she said. “It’s such a disservice to the children.”
The vacancies popped up either through layoffs, which are based on seniority, or through retirement or resignation.
Schools spokeswoman Smith said she did not know why Clemente’s position was filled before others in the district.
As the positions sat vacant, teachers heard rumors of different solutions at foot: One would require librarians to split time between two schools. Another would ask teachers to learn how to circulate books. A third would use paraprofessionals.
On Tuesday, Superintendent Mayo said he has come up with a new solution: Use some of the $3.8 million in state money to fill the positions. The money comes from the extra Educational Cost Sharing money awarded to “Alliance Districts,” the state’s 30 lowest-performing school districts. The money can’t be used for just anything; it comes with strings attached.
State education spokesman Jim Polites said New Haven has submitted a proposal for how it would use the $3.8 million and is awaiting approval. He said the money should come in the weeks following that approval; the state is “reluctant” to predict exactly when.
Schools spokeswoman Smith said the district is expecting approval by the end of the month.
Mayo said he is committed to bringing librarians back to the schools.
“We think they’re necessary,” he said.