By Sam P.K. Collins
In less than a month, legislation that secures full-time librarians for each District public school will expire, threatening an ongoing movement to ensure the continuity of school-based literacy programming.
If passed, the Students’ Right to Read Amendment Act permanently funds full-time librarians in each District public school. However, some school librarians, like Milea Pickett, said the D.C. Council has been slow to approve the legislation.
“A lot of council members have students who matriculated through DCPS, had the support of librarians, and even came into renovated libraries,” said Pickett, president of the D.C. Library Association.
“They personally understand the experience and importance of librarians in our system, and they’re holding this bill hostage.”
Last fall, not long after the council secured two years of funding for full-time public school librarians, D.C. Council Chairperson Phil Mendelson (D) and Council members Anita Bonds (D-At large), Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and Trayon White (D-Ward 8) introduced the Students’ Right to Read Amendment Act.
By November 23 of last year, the D.C. Council Committee of the Whole had hosted a public hearing on the Students’ Right to Read Amendment Act. There has since been no movement. As the clock winds down to November 23, once again, the bill faces further risk of extinction.
On Saturday, Pickett, who’s also a librarian at Randle Highlands Elementary School in Southeast, counted among dozens of school librarians, parents, and young people who converged on the Wilson Building in Northwest for a public “read-in” where participants read their favorite books and explained the importance of the pending legislation.
The two-hour event attracted several passersby, including At-large D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I), who reportedly said there’s been some miscommunication among council members about the Students’ Right to Read Amendment Act.
In recent months, Mendelson has set his sights on increasing transparency in the realm of government spending. While some advocates expressed appreciation for that focus, they said Mendelson and others must take more of a direct approach when it comes to permanently funding full-time librarians.
In response to an inquiry about the likelihood of that happening, Mendelson said the onus remains on DC Public Schools (DCPS) to allocate funds in its budget for full-time librarians.
“The chancellor has indicated repeatedly that DCPS requires every school to have a librarian,” Mendelson said. “As a result, we have not scheduled action on this bill that purports to implement a policy that is already in place.”
Last weekend’s act of civil disobedience followed the delivery of letters and public testimony by librarians over the last few months. Those who’ve flooded council hearings continue to stress that they are needed at a time when public school and public charter school officials attempt to increase students’ reading fluency.
At the beginning of the school year, PARCC scores hinted at the effects of pandemic-related learning loss. This week, data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed no statistically significant gains in the average scores of DCPS 4th and 8th graders over the last three years.
Even so, the District counts among the top urban school districts in the U.S., showing signs of improvement, what some school librarians describe as a testament to online tools and reading resources they provided at the height of the pandemic.
Over the last couple of years, efforts have centered on integrating the latest research about dyslexia and other reading disorders into classroom instruction. All the while, public school librarians continue to argue that they, too, serve as an invaluable resource for students in need of additional support.
In the hours before she was scheduled to testify on teacher and principal retention before the D.C. Council on Tuesday, K.C. Boyd stressed the need for permanent funding for school librarians. She said DCPS has been given too much latitude to cut positions essential to developing well-read, emotionally stable students.
That’s why Boyd said she remains committed to seeing that the D.C. Council approves the Students’ Right to Read Amendment Act.
“We have to be laser-focused with the language to ensure that DCPS will include school library programs and full-time school librarians in the budget,” said Boyd, a librarian at Jefferson Middle School Academy in Southwest.
“The council had this bill going up for a year, and they can push it through. Why they’re not doing it, I don’t know. Who helps motivate students to read, and they’re trained to do so? Librarians insert that love of reading.”