Super Heroes: These Superintendents Champion School Libraries

Visionary school leaders and superintendents are reinventing school libraries, highlighting their key role in student learning and literacy.

From left: Superintendents Warren Drake and Pam Moran From Left: Photo courtesy of East Baton Rouge Parish School System; photo by Cale Elem librarian Anna Balasz

Thomas S. Woods-Tucker vividly remembers his high school’s media center in Cotton Plant, AR. He would pore over the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette and spend time on the first computer he’d ever seen, an IBM Tandy 1000.

“I have no idea what the computer cost back then, but I am sure it was a lot,” he says. “But this small, rural school purchased one for us. Our librarian knew where the future was going, and the impact it would have on us.”

Thomas S. Woods-Tucker
Photo courtesy of Princeton City Schools

Woods-Tucker now leads Princeton City School District in Cincinnati. The district encompasses 10 schools, each with a school library, along with a mobile media center that roams the community each summer. Inside are games, puppets, stuffed animals, maker space activities, and Chromebooks.

To Woods-Tucker, libraries are the nexus for the cultural, digital, and literacy learning needs for all of his students. “There’s no other aspect of the school that rivals learning as a metaphor than the library,” he says. “How could a school exist without one?”

He is among many visionary school leaders and superintendents who are reinventing school libraries, highlighting their key role in student learning and literacy. From restyling and rebranding facilities to making sure certified school librarians are on staff, these leaders are ensuring their libraries stay vital.

Making it vibrant

When faced with difficult budget crunches, Art Cavazos never considered cutting libraries. Instead, the superintendent of Harlingen (TX) Consolidated Independent School District made sure all 30 district schools had a library media specialist. He changed the facilities’ name to information literacy centers to link them to the district’s goals. Now, Cavazos sees them as the largest digital classrooms on campus. He has also funded makeovers and given some the café treatment—offering students drinks and snacks and hosting open mic nights for student poetry.

“That’s where we want the excitement to be, and the love of learning to facilitate itself,” Cavazos says. “It’s about creating the environment kids are used to.”

More than 90 percent of high school students in his district now graduate within four years. Currently, 95 percent of ninth graders are moving up to become sophomores, while five years ago, that number was in the low 80s.

Cavazos believes these successes relate directly to the transformation of the libraries. In a college and career room located next to the high school library café, seniors get guidance from advisers. “Usage of the library has increased exponentially,” he says. “They’re vibrant.”

From Left: Mat McRae and Art Cavazos
From Left: Photo courtesy of Swan Valley School District; photo courtesy of Harlingen CISD

Building a hub

Mat McRae remembers when he’d walk into the high school’s library media center in the Swan Valley School District in Saginaw, MI, where he superintendent, and hear crickets. Today the space is a hub of activity led by district librarian and certified media specialist Kay Wejrowski. She also oversees libraries in the district’s two elementary schools and middle school.

“Promise literacy, first and foremost,” says McRae. At the libraries, students may be coding with devices like Dash and Dot, engaging in 3-D printing, or taking virtual field trips. High school students meet with preschool reading buddies.

The facilities are open before and after school, with the high school library available at least 90 minutes before morning classes. That library also serves the community through programs such as Cyber-Seniors, says McRae. The initiative, launched with funding from local businesses, sends students to senior centers and individual homes to help older people get comfortable with tech and social media. “Our kids walk them though, setting up Twitter accounts and Facebook,” says McRae. “They can seem lonely, and social media is one way for them to connect.” Students get school credit for their involvement.

While paraprofessionals staff the elementary and middle school facilities, McRae is committed to librarians’ professional development to keep Swan Valley’s media centers active and focused on literacy. While hiring certified school librarians would be “ideal,” the district size and budget don’t allow for this currently, he says.

Students work on English projects at the Jarrell (TX) Middle School library.
Photo courtesy of Jarrell Independent School District

Start with the media center

On weekday mornings, more than 70 middle school students congregate at the school library in the Jarrell (TX) Independent School District. Kids can also eat lunch in the “controlled chaos” of the library, says district superintendent Bill Chapman.

“I don’t have quiet librarians,” he adds. “I have the loudest in the world, and they want kids in there.”

Chapman has also focused on making libraries more student-friendly. That meant ditching old-fashioned stacks and book racks and bringing in mobile furniture. In the middle school, the library is called the “transformer room.”

When Chapman started as district superintendent in 2012, he oversaw three campuses, with libraries staffed by one librarian and three aides. Today, the district has four campuses and four full-time librarians. Chapman values libraries in part because of his own experience. “If I was not out playing with my friends or participating in sports, I was reading,” he says.

Having credentialed library media staff is also vitally important to Warren Drake. The superintendent of East Baton Rouge (LA) Parish Schools for the past three years has worked hard to place school librarians in all 83 district schools.

When he started, 29 campuses lacked librarians. “I could not believe [it],” Drake says. “The autonomy given to principals allowed them to make those choices on different things. I am not saying they didn’t spend money wisely….However, I think you start with the media center.”

Drake told his principals to hire certified media specialists, whom he expects to be school “technology leaders.” Those not fluent in current tech skills receive training. That’s crucial, Drake notes. With 24,000 Chromebooks, the district is moving toward 1:1. Media centers also are being transformed with docking stations for student devices and modular furniture.

Library as kitchen, not supermarket

Transforming spaces has been central to a school library shift in the Albemarle County School District in Charlottesville, VA. Whether it’s turning a closet into a high school recording studio or making the circulation desk a tech help center staffed by students, the entire district is upending the idea of what the library can be.

Ira Socol, the district’s executive director for technologies and innovation, prioritizes libraries’ potential as a place for creation and innovation over browsing. “Libraries needed to be kitchens, not supermarkets,” he says.

Bringing in new ideas also meant dispensing with the old, including a majority of the library books. Socol says the district weeded out 70 percent of the print collection—and saw a 600 percent increase in circulation.

“When we weed, kids can easily find the good books,” he says. “Libraries filled with stacks are simply not inviting. And if kids aren’t in the library, they aren’t being exposed to books.”

“The average [publication date] of books in the collection was 1989,” adds Albemarle High School librarian Erica Thorsen. Many had not been checked out in at least four years. Weeding helped students see books that were previously lost or overlooked jewels.”

Other changes included raising the ceilings, replacing old flooring, and removing computer banks as the school shifted to a 1:1 model. These changes cost $90,000 over five years and included 25 schools, says Socol. The district found extra money from other modifications, adds superintendent Pam Moran. For example, installing solar panels lowered energy bills and opened up funding streams that she could redirect to the library.

The new circulation desks and shelves are on wheels. “We were designing for learning,” Moran says. “As the pedagogy and curriculum of libraries changes to be more project-based and maker-based, we had to make spaces that met that need.”

Reporting to the director of innovation

Maker spaces are key school library elements in Indian Prairie (IL) School District 204, says Karen Sullivan, superintendent for the past four years. Sullivan’s priorities include launching maker projects and making the library space more collaborative, particularly for teachers.

Karen Sullivan
Photo courtesy of Indian Prairie School District 204

“We were looking at the K–12 coding instructional framework and how to get that working into every part of our curriculum,” she says. “Librarians started getting kids into robots and coding, and [we are] looking to move that out beyond the maker spaces of the library media centers. Librarians have been critical to us getting that jump start.”

One way to make this happen involved bringing librarians together under the umbrella of a central director of innovation, formerly called the director of instructional technology. Sullivan changed the position’s name to focus more on instruction than tech.

Media specialists travel to other libraries in the district and beyond to see what works for curriculum and student engagement elsewhere—and what doesn’t.

The school librarians meet at least monthly to focus on professional learning and have a Facebook page and a blog. Sullivan wants school librarians who can “lead beyond the library,” she says. Sharing ideas doesn’t require a multimillion-dollar budget—but a mind-set for change.

“If you live in an insulated bubble, you’re going to stay that way,” says Sullivan, who is used to operating in lean times, as Illinois lacked a state budget for two years. “We did a [district] audit and looked at resources we weren’t using, and put that money to use [in the libraries].”

Identifying priorities is key to any successful school library program, says Woods-Tucker. “You’re always making choices,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a single public school district that has all the money it needs to make choices without prioritizing items. Where do you decide to put your resources? All decisions made are guided by our mission and strategic plan to empower each student for college, career, and life choices.”

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