No more storytime

B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell likes to promote himself as a champion of literacy. He placed it first on his government's list of “Five Great Goals for a Golden Decade” , which aim to make the province the best-educated, most literate jurisdiction in North America by 2010. He is featured in a photograph on the Education Ministry Web site reading to a semicircle of rapt children in a school library. And he regularly reviews books that have “inspired”  him at ReadOnBC.ca., where he reads to captive tykes in what appears to be his office and where he is also shown in a photo op hawking daily newspapers on a rainy Vancouver street for a literacy fundraiser.

If you Google Premier Gordon Campbell and literacy, more than 10,000 hits pop up, compared with Premier Dalton McGuinty and literacy (875) or Premier Ralph Klein and literacy (536). In a government Web site video address from October 2005, Campbell further emphasized the importance of literacy.

“One of the things that really shocks me is that 40 percent of the adult population in British Columbia have problems with basic literacy,”  Campbell says against a backdrop of impressively bound books. “Just think about what that means. We know today that people with high literacy skills do better in the workforce.” 

However, for critics who believe that literacy begins in the local school library, B.C. Liberal policies have steered funding and resources away from that key resource.

“They're not making the link between schools and literacy,”  B.C. Teacher-Librarian Association (BCTLA) president Pat Parungao said during a phone interview. “[Literate students] need a broad base of resources, and the best place to do that is the school library.” 

On its Web site, the Ministry of Education states that it aims to improve literacy rates by “building community capacity to improve literacy of community members of all ages” . Focusing on student achievement””especially during the early learning period up to age six””will improve literacy rates and increase access to information by breaking down the artificial barriers between school, university, and community libraries, according to a recent Ministry of Community, Aboriginal, and Women's Services strategy document entitled Libraries Without Walls: The World Within Your Reach.

Education Minister Shirley Bond reinforced Campbell's commitment to literacy during a phone interview with the Georgia Straight (a spokesperson for Campbell declined to set up an interview).

“Our premier stood up and said that literacy is essential for individuals and for the life of the province,”  Bond said. “What we're trying to demonstrate is that libraries should be thinking of collaborative approaches to providing resources...It's unfortunate if we limit our discussion to school libraries.” 

But B.C. Coalition for School Libraries chair Kathryn Shoemaker told the Straight that although the ministry's rhetoric embraces literacy, her coalition would like to be more assured that the government is committed to giving students the teaching tools and resources offered by trained school librarians. Shoemaker said the Ministry of Education's citation of a recent Statistics Canada study that found that B.C. has the second-highest average teacher/librarian-per-school rate in Canada (0.48 per school, compared with the country's average of 0.25) is nothing to brag about.

“The government says we have one of the best teacher/librarian-to-school rates in the country, but having the best in the country doesn't say a lot,”  Shoemaker said. “It's not what it should be or what it once was.” 

On January 31, 2005, the Education Ministry provided $150 million to B.C. school districts in additional funding for school libraries, music and arts programs, and support for special-needs students. It plans to fund another $20 million for the same purpose next year and states that districts have more funding now because of declining student enrollment across the province due to demographic shifts and Canada's aging population (37,000 less children in B.C. next year as opposed to 2001 levels, according to Bond).

This money was distributed to individual school districts, which make funding and staffing decisions for school libraries. The ministry provides resources, and the districts figure out how to distribute them based on their own circumstances, Bond said. According to a ministry FAQ, only 12 out of 60 B.C. school districts indicated they would dedicate some of this $150-million funding to library and learning resources. In the Vancouver School District, staffing in 12 secondary school libraries improved while service levels remained unchanged in four (information for the two other district schools was unavailable).

“The theory is that the school and the school district are in the best position to meet student needs,”  Bond said. “School boards made choices on how to use those dollars. School districts chose how based on the needs they have.” 

B.C. school boards reported to the ministry that in 2006 they will have spent an estimated $92 million on school library staff, services, and supplies. Part of this money will go toward 1,193 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff, including 745 teachers, that will help schools provide library services across the province. However, placing increased control into the hands of individual school districts does not automatically result in better funding for school libraries””often, it is the contrary.

“Schools are cannibalizing themselves,”  Mary Locke, teacher-librarian at General Gordon elementary and past BCTLA president, said in a phone interview. “There's too much decentralization of funding.” 

In March 2006, the BCTLA released its 25th annual survey of working and learning conditions. According to the report, “it is not apparent...that this infusion [of $150 million] has translated into substantive positive changes for school library programs and teacher-librarian staffing.” 

According to Moira Ekdahl, teacher-librarian and department head of resource services at Gladstone secondary, the district allocation of the monies was made on the basis of a formula established at the school board level to ensure equality of staffing within schools, not equity of provision of school library services.

“The board's formula makes school libraries compete with special-needs programs, counselling, ESL, and administrative allocations of staffing,”  Ekdahl said.

“There is only one way to ensure equitable delivery of service and that is the creation of a formula, ratio, or standard for the number of teacher-librarians based on student enrollment in the school.” 

Ekdahl said that although her school received a small staffing increase due to the $150 million, none of that went to the library””instead, she lost some staffing that year. With no province-wide definition for what a teacher-librarian actually is or does, it is unclear whether or not those 745 teachers are actually FTE teacher-librarians.

“My fear is that someone in their wisdom feels that human contact and the instructional role of the teacher-librarian is no longer important,”  said Ekdahl said later in a phone interview.

The BCTLA supports many of the initiatives outlined in Libraries Without Walls””the virtual reference books, for example. They agree with increased cooperation between community and school libraries. However, they disagree with one major omission: any mention whatsoever in the document of teacher-librarians or school libraries.

Libraries Without Walls is not the only provincial-government document that ignores teacher-librarians and their role in literacy development. According to the BCTLA, there is no strict definition of what a teacher-librarian is or does in any of the ministry's documents.

At the district level, Vancouver's teacher- librarians have produced several documents that list their roles and responsibilities. The Vancouver school district technology plan notes that the library is the hub of information resources in the school, and the Vancouver Teacher-Librarian Association developed a document clarifying teacher-librarians' roles and responsibilities.

Teacher-librarians define their position as different from community librarians. They see themselves foremost as teachers who help students develop research and critical-thinking skills in a way that's relevant to class curriculum. With the advent of the Internet, according to Parungao, the school library is becoming more integrated with on-line sources. School libraries need a teacher who is qualified to teach students to navigate and evaluate information they find on the Web.

“Without a teacher-librarian, students go to Google and bring up 20 million hits for Christopher Columbus,”  Parungao said. “Schools need professionals to [help students] sort through that information.” 

A body of evidence from research conducted in the United States and parts of Canada found a link between the presence of a well-staffed, well-funded school library and overall student achievement. For example, a 2001 study by Keith Curry Lance, the director of the library research service for the Colorado department of education, and a report this year by the Ontario Library Association found that standardized scores tend to be 10 to 25 percent higher in schools with effective libraries.

“I find it odd that even if there's improved support from the government for public libraries, there's still no mention of the link to school libraries,”  said former Vancouverite Ken Haycock, the director of San Jose State University's school of library and information science. “The lack of policy direction and leadership is most appalling.” 

Haycock, who directed UBC's school of library, archival, and information studies for 10 years, has spent his career studying the state of school libraries in Canada and the U.S. A few years ago, he conducted a study in B.C. that found the top-performing schools in the province (as rated by the Fraser Institute, a methodology he said he doesn't agree with but felt would be useful in communicating with policymakers) had the best-funded school libraries.

In June 2003, Haycock published The Crisis in Canada's School Libraries: The Case for Reform and Re-Investment, a report arguing for the need to improve school libraries across Canada. He said he remembers when UBC had four full-time faculty members who trained teacher-librarians””now there is one. The University of Victoria no longer has such a training program.

“B.C.'s school libraries have been in decline for 20 years,”  he said. “In the last couple of years, they have stabilized at a low level. There's no question it's a serious problem.” 

In the past, the province set ratios to guarantee the number of school librarians””one teacher-librarian per 400 students. Then the number dropped officially to one in 700. Now this guaranteed ratio has been done away with””a policy Education Minister Bond defends by saying it promotes more flexibility for individual districts.

“We believe we've been clear...that the rigid-formula requirement is not the best way to serve students,”  Bond said. “We don't support rigid formulas.” 

According to the BCTLA, this shift away from guaranteed teacher-librarians has resulted in declining numbers of full-time equivalent teacher-librarians. The BCTLA's latest annual survey found that, taking into account time spent assisting teachers, only 18 percent of the schools that participated in the study (which was just over half of the province's 1,679 public schools) had a full-time equivalent teacher-librarian, while more than 60 percent had a paid library clerk or technician, up from 57 percent last year.

“Study results suggest that full-time teacher- librarian staffing is being eroded while clerical and technical staffing is increasing,”  the report states.

In Richmond, the school district initially reduced the number of school librarians to 0.5 per school before bringing it back up to its present rate of 0.75.

“The new ratio gives me five blocks of library time on an eight-block cycle, making a consistent library program impossible,”  said Brigitte Knoepfel, teacher-librarian at Richmond's Robert A. McMath secondary, which has 1,150 students.

The Lower Mainland's library collections have dropped by half in the past decade, according to the B.C. Coalition for School Libraries. General Gordon elementary's Locke said that 15 years ago, the school's budget allowed for 1.5 books per student per year (adjusted for inflation). She said she is now able to purchase only one book a year for every three students.

The BCCSL argues money for collections should still take second place to staffing. “Even if collections are more limited, if you have a good librarian you can make the best use of it,”  Shoemaker said. “A great collection with no one to oversee and work with it is questionable.” 

Robert A. McMath secondary received $55,000 of the $150 million in extra funding. Of this amount, the school library received only $1,000.

“We bought a set of eight reference books,”  Knoepfel said.

The BCTLA's report found that “overall there has been a steady decline in funding per student full-time equivalent with a slight increase in the last year” ””most likely due to the influx of $150 million from the government. The BCTLA states that each elementary student FTE received $12.33 and each secondary student FTE received $12.74 of school-library funding in the 2005–06 school year. National standards developed by the Canadian School Library Association hold that secondary students should receive $36 to $45 and elementary pupils $26 to $35.

Giving individual school districts more control can also result in regional variations in levels of staffing. At Kitsilano's General Gordon, for example, Locke's budget has remained the same for several years and her staffing levels have only slightly improved. In a school of 420 with an 85-percent FTE teacher-librarian (with the other 15 percent of her time taken up by preparation), her school is quite good by provincial standards.

“I don't think we're doing badly,”  she said. “But we're not on the path if we keep cutting services for children...Some schools have virtually no teacher-librarian...There's not many school districts that could say that staffing has improved in the last few years.” 

Another staffing concern is Bill 33, which passed and became the Education (Learning Enhancement) Statutes Amendment Act on May 18, 2006. The act lowers the teacher-student ratio across the province. In a May 4, 2006, letter to the Ministry of Education, the BC Teachers' Federation raised a concern that “an adequate number of specialist teachers, including teacher-librarians, ESL teachers, counsellors...and others, is necessary to support students and ensure their success.” 

With schools struggling to fit the new ratio, school teacher-librarians are worried that without new funding, they will be pulled into classrooms and away from the library.

“We're concerned with the local-level pressures on school boards to meet the needs of the program,”  BCCSL chair Shoemaker said. “Meeting the new teacher-student ratios may take the teacher-librarians out of the library and remove the resource””removing the captain that steers the ship.” 

Given the current control awarded to individual school boards, perhaps the best way for parents to increase funding for school libraries is to appeal to local school boards.

“Go to the school boards and impress upon your community leaders the understanding of the need for school libraries,”  Shoemaker said. “More people need to go to school boards and say we need school libraries””that's critical to us.” 

Premier Gordon Campbell has stated that literacy is a key component of his government's goals. If parents who believe that school libraries are important tools in developing literacy skills raise their voices about the funding issue, teacher-librarians may once again be an integral part of the school community.

Comments