Another School Librarian Lost: Chicago Public Schools’ Leslie Westerberg Shares Her Story

Westerberg doesn't know if being outspoken in her advocacy for educators and school libraries factored into her dismissal, but the end result is the same: more Chicago kids without a certified school librarian in their building.

Leslie Westerberg

 

When students return to Nixon Elementary School in Chicago this month, librarian Leslie Westerberg will not be there to greet them as she has for the last nine years.

As the 2021–22 year was winding down in June, Westerberg went to the office to drop off some book fine money from a student. Unexpectedly, she was brought into the principal’s office and told the school was eliminating her position.

Westerberg is not alone, of course—not across the country or in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). When money is tight, school librarians are often the first to go. Westerberg can only wonder if her years of being an outspoken voice against CPS budget cuts hastened her exit.

“It does feel like, oftentimes, the loudest voices in CPS are the ones that get punished,” she says.

There were other factors, too, she says. Aside from the budget issues, Westerberg is pursuing a master’s degree in school social work, so she only had a year left in the library before embarking on that new career, which she pursued in part because she didn’t see librarianship as a long-term career in the district.

“I just couldn’t see a future being a librarian forever in CPS, given the state of school libraries,” she says. “Unfortunately, the district doesn’t prioritize [school libraries], I am sad to say. I don’t feel like they appreciate school librarians and the value that they bring to every school.”

She believes that being a school social worker will be a natural extension of her time in the library.

“So much of what we do as librarians involves social emotional learning,” she says. “I’ve read stories with students, where we talk about feelings that we’ve gone through and the traumas that we’ve experienced and how we heal. There’s also a social justice element to social work that I really appreciated with librarianship. The two professions are tied in many ways.”

Now she wonders what will happen to the Nixon library that she rebuilt over the last nine years, with an estimated $200,000 in fundraising used to enlarge the library collection from 2,000 tiles when she started in 2013 to almost 15,000 now. In addition to the books, the library has new furniture and shelving.

According to a CPS spokesperson, the library is being “rebranded to a media center,” and, as of mid-July, the full plan for its use was still being developed.

Another outspoken CPS elementary school librarian, Nora Wiltse, was also laid off in June. While they can’t know if their advocacy was a factor in the district decision, Westerberg says other librarians may now be hesitant to speak up.

“I do think it will factor in, in terms of librarians being outspoken,” she says, adding there is a “fear mentality” that permeates the district and impacts the most vulnerable. “Librarians know that our positions are in such danger and oftentimes when budgets are cut, [librarian positions are] one of the first to go. It will make librarians even more hesitant to speak out against the cuts.”

While she has applied for open librarian positions in the district, she can’t imagine starting over and trying to rebuild a library at a new school.

“I have not applied to the positions where the libraries have been closed for almost a decade, just because after building up the library for nine years and doing all that fundraising, it’s just so much of my time and my energy and my spirit,” she says. “I don’t know if I have it in me to rebuild again.”

As a tenured teacher, Westerberg is eligible to substitute for a year at her regular salary, she says.

“I think it will be a good experience for me to substitute teach and see what it’s like to work in other school environments, and under different administrations with different student populations,” she says. “I’ve been working with the same students for so long, and I love them so much, but I also think maybe it would benefit me to experience what it’s like to work with high schoolers. I’ve never gotten to work with them before.”

She will miss reading stories to kids the most, something even the fifth and sixth graders in her building really enjoyed.

“This has been a wonderful ride,” she says. “I love being a librarian. I’ve just loved sharing books, but especially picture books with my youngest students. I truly believe that I have readers because we’ve developed that love of learning early. It’s so critical to have access to a library and a library where we can get students excited about reading and about learning and pursuing their passions. … I wish that the district understood the importance of librarians, because we are important. We’re critical in every single school.”

Westerberg says it’s “tragic” that so many CPS libraries have sat empty, leaving students without instruction in areas such as research skills, technology, and media literacy, along with access to books that speak to them.

“Classroom libraries just serve a t­otally different purpose,” says ­Westerberg. “I just find that school libraries are a magical place.” 

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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