achievement gap · Diverse Books · Educational Equity · literacy · NYC Teacher Voices · Teacher Voices

School Librarians Are Critical to Students’ Literacy: Why There Should Be One in Every NYC Public School!

(This is a guest post by J.F. (Jenny) Fox, a mother, author, school book committee chairperson, and library advocate. She lives in New York City, where her sons attend public school in Brooklyn. Her books include Friday Night Wrestlefest (Roaring Brook) and the Head-to-Head History series (Kids Can Press). Her website is: Twitter: @bookishfox. IG: @j.f.foxbooks.)

Librarians are insightful, highly-skilled professionals. Many of us have fond memories of beloved librarians from our own school days. A librarian’s superpower is knowing each of their students and what kinds of books they may love. Librarians empower students and make them feel seen and supported, as the children explore their own interests. Choice and autonomy are important factors in helping students not just learn to read, but also to truly love books—putting them on the path to becoming lifelong readers and learners. Certified librarians also support teachers and staff, creating a well-curated literacy hub and research resource for the entire school.

Librarians do not just check out books. In addition to reviewing, purchasing, and organizing books, they also teach essential skills—including how to find information and determine whether or not it’s true. Lessons in accessing and evaluating information are crucial to our kids in an age of Wikipedia, YouTube, social media, and a glut of other digital sources. According to Stephanie Gamble, a librarian at Johns Hopkins University, “Students have been raised in a world in which there’s more information than any one person can exhaustively consider. Trying to narrow down that information can paralyze them.”

(“Lacking Research Skills, Students Struggle. School Librarians Can Help Solve the College Readiness Gap,” School Library Journal, Sep 4, 2019.)

Having “equal access” to information and knowing how to find it is essential for all students and particularly those in vulnerable populations—including students living in poverty and ESL/ELL students. Research skills have life-long and life-changing benefits. Right now, students might be looking for information about unusual animals, foreign countries, or current events. Later, they might need to research scholarships, job applications, terms of a lease, or where to vote. For students who are college-bound, many schools report that students are unprepared and have inadequate research skills to succeed in higher education.

In his address on March 2, 2022, New York City Schools Chancellor David C. Banks highlighted the literacy work that needs to be done in NYC public schools. He cited, “Not enough of our students graduate ready for college or a career” and that “an unacceptable number of our students don’t learn how to read by the third grade.” The third-grade benchmark is vital, because students who are not proficient readers by third grade are up to four times more likely to drop out of high school. Additionally, in third grade students are still learning to read, but by fourth grade they are reading to learn. When a fourth-grader lacks adequate reading skills, learning losses in all subjects are compounded.

If we want our children to succeed and thrive in life, we need to give them all the tools possible to help them to become proficient readers. Having certified librarians in our schools has been proven by years of data to improve student literacy outcomes, college preparedness, research skills, graduation rates, test scores, and equity.

Make no mistake, literacy is an equity and a social justice issue. The ability to learn to read is a right; and many of our kids who are most vulnerable (including students in poverty and ESL/ELL students) are experiencing school librarian losses at a rate up to two times higher than students in non-vulnerable populations. School librarians should be cornerstones in our schools’ literacy foundations. All of our students deserve them. Other cities have made strides toward this goal: Washington, D.C. recently adopted legislation to include school librarians in all of their schools. Boston public schools have announced plans to have librarians in all schools by 2026. Unfortunately, New York City seems to be moving in the wrong direction. In 2005, New York City public schools had 1,500 librarians for 1,800 elementary, middle, and high schools; today there are 450 librarians (EdWeek, Feb 2022). Current state mandates are inadequate, unfunded, and unenforced. New York City, one of the richest cities in one of the wealthiest nations on earth, owes its public school students much more in their pursuit of literacy and overall success in life. Let’s start by giving them librarians.

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