A library success story

In a sea of budget cuts, Jones library is an oasis

When the entirety of Jones was in the North Building, the renamed Student Learning Center on the second floor was the library, until it was cut for various reasons.

“When I became principal 10 years ago, when we were just in the other building, I was surprised and dismayed that we did not have a library,” said principal Dr. P. Joseph Powers. “Part of the rationale was, ‘Well, we have the Harold Washington Library a block away,’ which is a wonderful library, but it’s not a teaching library.”

As plans were drawn for the new building, advocates of a large library received pushback from several staff members, many of whom felt it would be a waste of money and cited controversial statistics that students don’t read paper books in the digital age. Powers was  adamant about its inclusion, feeling strongly that it is “the heart and brain of the school.”

“The resources are all together in one place,” said Powers. “You have a person in place in the form of the Library Media Specialist who understands not only how to use them, but how to help students and guide them through that process.”

The design and implementation process of the Jones library was largely guided by CPS, sitting down with administration to discuss physical setup, from furniture to technological resources, and the content of the print collection.

“They asked us, for example, to provide genres or titles that we wanted to add to personalize, because CPS provided a core print collection,” said Powers. “We were able to tailor the library to a large extent as we moved in.”

It is evident that CPS has substantial resources, capabilities, and support in the area of school libraries.

“Over a period of 3 days, it went from an empty space to furnished, carpeted, with books on the shelves all catalogued, all done by CPS,” said Powers.

The impact of the library on students has been clear the very first day, which Powers largely attributes to the librarians. The first librarian in the new building, Katie Terry, has been described by Powers as “very energetic and very committed to the library, a lot of the same characteristics as Mr. Feeley.”

“On day one, Ms. Terry said that there were about five or six girls who walked in and asked, ‘Can we check out books?’ because they hadn’t had a school library,” said Powers. “And she said, ‘That’s what we’re here for.’”

The current librarian, Francis Feeley, is currently in his third year at Jones. Prior to his time at Jones, Feeley has held a number of positions around the city from elementary school librarian to school counselor.

he considered the impact he would be able to make on students as a librarian, and what he could gain from working at the heart of so many resources.

“As a teacher, you learn that when you support students in projects, you learn alongside them,” said Feeley. “In a high school setting, I benefit from my students’ learning just by being present to it. In fact, it has turned out exactly as I planned; I read a lot more than I did before I became a librarian.”

Feeley’s goals for the library include a focus on information literacy. He defines this as the ability to access information, make judgements regarding its value and authenticity, putting forth one’s own work with integrity and giving credit where it’s due, and contributing to a global flow of information.

“I couldn’t have possibly come into librarianship at a more interesting time,” said Feeley. “We’re in the midst of an attack on truth, an attack on the integrity of the press, an attack really on information and the very idea of facts, so this is a really important time for people of all ages to become aware of the resources that are available to them and the techniques to engage in, and to seek the truth that they’re looking for, between the lines of all the noise.”

In addition to supplementing the learning students are doing in school, and providing resources that aid their understanding of their studies, many resources available through the library aim to facilitate students’ interpretation of the information they receive via the media, or news, extending the library’s sphere of influence to larger aspects of students’ lives.

“There is a great need for people of all ages to become aware of how to guarantee that the information that’s flowing toward them is true and coming from sources who really wish to inform them and not mislead them, or lead them toward a path of misunderstanding,” said Feeley.

The Chicago Public Schools Department of Literacy, the office that oversees libraries in Chicago schools, shares Feeley’s emphasis on literacy, though their definition is based on a language-driven interpretation of the skill.

“We view literacy as the ability to read, write, and communicate effectively,” said Dorsey Chambers-Malewig, the Library Coordinator for CPS. “Our goal is for students to have expertise in listening, speaking, reading, writing, and thinking critically across a range of disciplines, such as humanities, science, and social science. We are also strong advocates for bilingualism and biliteracy.”

The impact of a school library on students and teachers goes beyond books, computers, and databases. Several studies point to the correlation between the presence of a library and student achievement, and the impact of librarians available to students. A 2005 study conducted by the Illinois School Library Media Association found that “higher library staffing levels are linked to higher reading performance for elementary, middle, and high schoolers,” with increases of roughly 13 percent, eight percent, and seven percent, respectively. Additionally, ISAT writing performance for fifth graders and ACT scores for eleventh graders saw significant increases that correlated to the presence of a school librarian. The relationship between libraries, librarians, and students was also found to transcend race/ethnicity, socioeconomic class, teacher-pupil ratios, and school spending per student, further proving the tangible impact of libraries on students from all backgrounds.

Despite findings and results such as these, libraries and librarians have been some of the hardest hit by budget cuts, particularly over the last several years. Libraries, unlike other common core standards and requirements such as physical education, are not mandated by the state, meaning their funding and staff are often the first to be cut.

“When I came on board with Chicago Public Schools’ libraries in 2006, there was a library department with quite a number of professional librarians who were employed to support the vast number of libraries and librarians that were embedded in schools,” said Feeley. “Nowadays, there’s one full time person, and then another person, who supports our circulation software, and the number of librarians has been reduced substantially.”

If school libraries are disappearing and librarian positions are being cut across the city, then how is Jones able to sustain its library? The answer lies in careful budgeting.

“It’s a bit of a juggling game,” said Powers. “It has to do with how you move the dollars around in the various accounts.”

School budgets are based on the number of students enrolled, and each school receives the same amount of money per student, so Jones gets the same funding proportionally as every CPS high school. The population of Jones has increased over the past few years, and with those increases came more money overall, allowing a librarian position to be budgeted in addition to adding other staff and programming.

“We’ve been very careful of how we’ve managed the money, and made sure that we’d earmarked the funds so we would always have a librarian,” said Powers. “But we don’t have a library assistant. For a library like ours, I wish I had a full-time library assistant, but that’s something we haven’t been able to do.”

Despite a balanced budget, midyear rollbacks that occurred several times have threatened teaching positions at schools across CPS, particularly those with sinking populations or overextended financial resources. Jones, however, has received additional money in other ways such as through weekend building rentals and from Friends of Jones.

“Friends of Jones is extremely helpful because the fundraising that they do helps us to devote our budgeted money to our core mission,” said Powers. “Their donations are then able to go towards the things that are extra, and that means additional technology, for example, or funding new programming. It’s really a partnership there.”

Powers’ belief in the importance of libraries, the role the library plays in students’ learning, and Feeley’s contagious enthusiasm for helping students and teachers navigate information are all reasons the library has been prioritized in Jones’ budget planning, allowing the school to support it while so many other schools are losing this resource.

“Anything we can do to provide that library for the kids, that’s the most important thing,” said Powers. “It’s the same as a university. No one would ever think that a university wouldn’t need a library, for goodness sakes. Why not a high school?”