School librarians a rare find in California public schools

Credit: Lillian Mongeau/EdSource Today

School librarian Shannon Engelbrecht reminds Tori Reese, 8, that she has several books overdue. Engelbrecht allows students at Charles Drew Preparatory Academy, a public school in San Francisco, to check out as many books as they want.

There are fewer school librarians in California today than there were in 1988. (Note: Data for years 1989-1997, 1999 and 2009 is approximate.) Sources: California Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics

(Click to enlarge.) There are fewer school librarians in California today than there were in 1988. (Note: Data for years 1989-1997, 1999 and 2009 is approximate.) Sources: California Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics

Shannon Engelbrecht,* who works for the San Francisco Unified School District, is poised to become one of a rare breed in California when her hours are increased next year: a full-time public school librarian.

California employed 804 school librarians in 2012-13, which translates to one certified school librarian for every 7,784 students in 2012-13, according to data from the California Department of Education. That is the lowest per-student ratio of any state in the country. The national average in the fall of 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, was one school librarian for every 1,022 students, according to The National Center for Education Statistics.

The lack of certified librarians has led to a decrease in student access to books, a decline in student research skills and the loss of an important resource for teachers, said Janice Gilmore-See, president of the California School Library Association.

“It’s actually pretty dreadful,” Gilmore-See said. “In 1999 we had 1,300 teacher librarians. We’re just going in the wrong direction.”

State funding for school libraries has never been steady. Prior to 1994, there was no money specifically set aside for them. Between 1994 and 2009, various statewide initiatives – from a check-off on income tax forms to a block grant program for districts – funneled vastly varying amounts of money to public school libraries. Those amounts ranged from $266,000 to $158.5 million annually.

Beginning in 2009, the funding set aside for libraries became “flexible,” meaning it could be spent on other priorities as districts scrambled to slash their budgets during the recession. Many districts now employ only one teacher librarian who oversees all the libraries in the district.

Cities that have managed to avoid that fate have had to look for money closer to home. San Francisco residents voted in 2004 to set aside money from the city’s general fund that would support “extras” like sports, art and school libraries, among other programs, for public school students. See sidebar.

As tax revenues returned to pre-recession levels this year, the fund has grown significantly, allowing public schools like the one where

On a recent afternoon in her sunny library at Charles Drew, Engelbrecht shifted some chapter books around on a shelf, trying to make it look full. Short, easy-to-read chapter books are exactly the type she knows her young students, who live in a low-income neighborhood of San Francisco, need more of.

Engelbrecht gets an annual budget to buy new books and replace dog-eared or out-of-date ones. Since Charles Drew hasn’t had a full-time librarian dedicated to curating the collection for a while, Engelbrecht said there’s work to be done. In addition to more chapter-books for early readers, she’d like her 6,000-book collection to include more graphic novels for children who aren’t ready for large blocks of text and more books about sports and other topics that tend to interest boys.

“I’m looking for empowering, enabling books about African-American children,” said Engelbrecht, whose school population is 80 percent black. “Then (for books about) Latino kids. They also deserve to see themselves in the collection.”

Engelbrecht also takes her teacher-support role seriously. She’s created a teacher resource library in a storage room off the main library. Teachers can find collections of books on subjects they teach, lesson plans and curriculum reference materials.

“Having a librarian has definitely directly benefited me as a teacher,” said Engelbrecht’s colleague, Laura Todorow.

Todorow, who teaches 3rd grade at Charles Drew, said the library contributes to a climate of learning and valuing books. Her students have had a chance to practice selecting and caring for books, have learned how to use a book catalogue and are more engaged in silent reading in class this year, Todorow said.

May 2014

Two 3rd grade boys look through chapter books about African American children in the library at Charles Drew College Preparatory Academy, a public elementary school in San Francisco. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

“I feel a school librarian is a non-negotiable necessity in any school,” she said.

Across the San Francisco Bay in Oakland, district librarian Ann Mayo Gallagher worries that teachers in her district might not know what benefits a school librarian could bring. Of the 75 school libraries in Oakland public schools, 23 are closed, 10 are run by volunteers and another 23 are run by part-time clerks. Nineteen are staffed by professional librarians, Mayo Gallagher said, but only one of those is paid by the district. The others are paid by individual schools, usually with money raised by the PTA.

And not even the open libraries are open all the time, Mayo Gallagher said. Of the libraries that are open, about half are open less than 20 hours a week.

“Currently (in Oakland), it’s possible to enter kindergarten and graduate high school never having gone to a school that has a library,” Mayo Gallagher said.

Many districts in the state face issues like those in Oakland. About half of the 600 elementary and middle school libraries in Los Angeles public schools are closed, according to a story in The Los Angeles Times. Forty of San Diego Unified’s 180 school libraries have been closed since budget cuts in 2008, according to a story in The School Library Journal. And the problem has spread beyond large urban districts, said See-Gilmore with the California School Library Association. She is the only teacher librarian in her suburban district of La Mesa Spring Valley, east of San Diego.

California has more students per school librarian than any state in the country. (Note: Data for years 1989-1997, 1999 and 2009 is approximate.) Sources: California Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics

(Click to enlarge.) California has more students per school librarian than any state in the country. (Note: Data for years 1989-1997, 1999 and 2009 is approximate.) Sources: California Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics

A few school districts in the state, like Palo Alto Unified, have managed to use their wealthy, local tax base to support public school libraries for years. Despite the difference in demographics, teachers in Palo Alto cited many of the same benefits of having full-time librarians as their San Francisco counterparts.

“The librarian is an amazing resource,” said Beth Maxwell, a fifth-grade teacher at Addison Elementary School in Palo Alto. “Teachers can do a lot, but when you’ve got someone who knows the kids and who can help instill the love of learning and reading, it makes a difference.”

Maxwell said the librarian at her school, Patricia Ohanian, works closely with teachers to support whatever they are working on in their classrooms. In addition to providing appropriate books and resources to match the content of classroom lessons, Maxwell said librarians teach students skills they need to finish their classroom work. During a recent research project on famous Americans, for example, Ohanian taught students how to write a bibliography during their weekly library visit.

Ohanian has been a teacher librarian for nearly 20 years and she’s been at Addison for the past six years. In addition to supporting teachers, Ohanian said she spends time keeping the school’s 16,680-book collection up to date and high quality, hosting special events like visiting authors, answering parents’ questions about their kids’ reading and leading school-wide literacy initiatives.

As Maxwell’s students took their seats in the library recently, Ohanian reminded them to get started on their opening activity for poetry month: Picking poems they liked from the collection of books on each table and copying them down so they would have several to pick from for “Poem in My Pocket Day.” Next, she led the class in reading out loud from a half dozen poems posted on the walls.

boy with iPad, May 2014

San Francisco 3rd grader Kalique Cheeves zooms in on a iPad he’s learned to use thanks to a grant written by his school librarian. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

“My curriculum is based on Common Core standards,” Ohanian said later, referring to the English language arts and math standards that most states have adopted. “I take different themes of literature and then I weave in whatever I can.”

For school districts without the resources or community support found in Palo Alto, the new Local Control Funding Formula might be an option for better funding school libraries and hiring more librarians.

Districts are still developing their plans for how to spend the money they will receive under the formula and it’s unclear if libraries and librarians will rise to the top of their priority lists.

Oakland has not yet published a draft of its plan. San Jose’s East Side Union, one of the districts EdSource is following closely this year, will be increasing the number of librarians in the district in response to community feedback. West Contra Costa is taking a different tack. Under the new formula, West Contra Costa plans to buy books and other library materials, but makes no mention of hiring additional librarians.

For districts that don’t choose to hire more librarians under the new funding formula, a bill currently before the state Assembly Appropriations Committee, AB 1955, might provide them with extra funding for three school years to hire a school nurse, a school psychologist and a school librarian. Districts would need to have at least 55 percent of their student population classified as low-income to qualify for the funding.

April 2014

Librarian Patricia Ohanian reviews personification with fifth grade students at Addison Elementary School in Palo Alto. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

Back in Addison’s library, 5th grader Simrun Rao had a mission. She’d just read a book called “Blue Jasmine,” about an Indian girl who immigrated to the United States and had to build a new life for herself. Simrun, who is Indian-American, wanted her friend to read the book too, so she asked Ohanian for the name of the author. Hearing “Kashmira Sheth,” the two girls scurried off to the “S” area of the fiction section.

Ohanian was glad to know that Simrun had liked “Blue Jasmine” so much, as she had recommended it. Like Englebrecht, Ohanian said it is critical for students to see themselves in the books they read and she has chosen the books in her collection accordingly. Her familiarity with her collection is the trait her students say they value most.

“If you tell her what type of book you like, she’ll help you out,” said fifth-grader Samantha Feldmeier, who visited the library with her class after Maxwell’s class had finished.

“She doesn’t have to look it up on the computer,” Emily Crowley​, also in fifth grade, added with a bit of awe in her voice. “She just knows.”

*This article has been corrected to reflect the correct spelling of Shannon Engelbrecht’s name.

Filed under: Curriculum, Early Learning, K-3 Grades, Literacy


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17 Responses to “School librarians a rare find in California public schools”

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  1. Momoffive on Apr 28, 2015 at 5:51 am04/28/2015 5:51 am

    • 000

    School libraries will soon be a thing of the past. More and more districts are scaling down libraries in favor of “online” choices. Our local high school is currently getting rid of thousands of books and plans to have 100% online in 2 years. If you criticize this you are called old-fashioned or not with the “21st century”. I used to love walking to the library with my elementary class to hear a new story week after week. Very sad!

  2. Randy de Jong on Jun 3, 2014 at 1:56 pm06/3/2014 1:56 pm

    • 000

    The CSLA president is Janice Gilmore-See. The article is great.

  3. Richard Opie on Jun 1, 2014 at 5:03 pm06/1/2014 5:03 pm

    • 000

    I train teachers’ aides some of whom will work as ‘librarians’. But I know from practical experience nothing beats a fully qualified teacher-llibrarian in a well-stocked library. Both of these are becoming rare in Australian public schools. TAs do great job but… I had a row with a school architect recently as he showed pictures of a school that the then school I worked at would look like. I asked for the library – as an Teacher of English, a library has always been central and he said: ‘look there it is.’ ‘Where?’ I replied. He pointed proudly to a half dozen shelves at the back of a corridor. Luckily, I was not speechless. I said, ‘you are the barbarian at the gates!’ Parents with me cheered. The govt prepared to fund the corridor, lost power, the new government is not even interested in funding a new, much needed school building. Ironically, it leaves the crumbling, remote school with a library, even if it is mouse ridden with a leaking roof. It has a great collection of books and the TA is hard working. With 44 years teaching experience I agree with your article, a good library with a qualified teacher librarian is central to the literacy needs of our young people.

  4. tara on May 28, 2014 at 10:21 am05/28/2014 10:21 am

    • 000

    Several of the comments reveal the general lack of understanding about what training a teaching librarian must have and the very important roles a teaching librarian fulfills for a school. Librarians have undergraduate degrees, and a masters degree in Library and Information or Media Science. A librarian is a specialist and a professional, not a para-professional. A good librarian is a manager, a teacher, a collection development expert, a curriculum leader, and a technology resource. In addition, a librarian works one on one with individual students in developing literacy and 21st Century information skills. Librarians are essential personnel and directly affect students’ lives and learning outcomes.

  5. David B. Cohen on May 28, 2014 at 12:43 am05/28/2014 12:43 am

    • 000

    Glad this is getting attention. It should be noted that librarians are teachers. In fact, a good librarian has to be the best teacher on a campus, because this is typically the only teacher whose responsibility extends to every student. We’re not talking about glorified book clerks and “Shhhh”-ing duty here. At Palo Alto High School, our librarian is incredibly pro-active. She anticipates student needs by familiarizing herself with the school-wide curriculum, to a degree possibly matched (but certainly not surpassed) by counselors and administrators. Knowing the curriculum allows the librarian to anticipate teacher needs as well. Collaboration between these teachers means that students (and even the classroom teachers) have better content for study, and learn the most up-to-date research skills and informational tools. Our librarian makes continual efforts to promote reading and literacy – not just by acquiring and checking out books, but also by finding out what students want to read, what form they prefer (audio, e-book, print), and what their individual tastes and interests are. She identifies what’s timely, relevant, important, popular. She has improved instruction by teachers, and made a remarkable difference in the academic careers – perhaps even the lives – of many, many students. As much as I admire her, she is not Superwoman. This is not heroism – it’s professionalism. And she couldn’t do that job without having her own support. That means she has a budget to spend, authority to spend, and classified staff supporting her. My question is, why is the norm for Palo Alto, and not every other school in California?


    • navigio on May 28, 2014 at 6:08 am05/28/2014 6:08 am

      • 000

      Because going to the library is not on the test.

  6. Gary Ravani on May 27, 2014 at 6:16 pm05/27/2014 6:16 pm

    • 000

    Some insight into these issues can be found right on this site, see: CA Drops to 49th in School Spending in Annual Ed Week Report. There was an even later one reporting that Ed Week reported CA had dropped to 50th for 2014, but there was some quibbling about whether or not that reflected up to date information. And that was important! If we are 49th we can hold our heads high in terms of our commitment to CA’s children and their education, whereas if we’ve dropped a place to 50th…oh boy!

    And who ever said CA’s kids deserved fully trained and credentialed professionals in their libraries, if they have a library? Next thing you know they’ll be wanting fully trained teachers instead of TFAers with five full weeks of training before they enter the classroom. And the idea of allowing librarians to have collective bargaining rights to leverage their working conditions (aka, kids’ learning conditions), are you kidding?

    For the wealthiest state in the union to be expected to fund students at just the national average, and we are currently about $3K below the national average per kid, is pure pie in the sky. What do you want to do, stop being the only oil producing state that doesn’t charge big oil an extraction tax? Dream on.

  7. tom on May 27, 2014 at 1:09 pm05/27/2014 1:09 pm

    • 000

    As stated in the article, clearly one of the obstacles is the cost to have a librarian. It is a poor reflection on our State to build and fill a library only to have it closed to students! This cost goes up when under State Law (or so I’m told) that the librarian has to be a School District employee. Is it time to look at changing the law to allow cheaper alternatives? Have this same issue with other personnel, e.g. para-professionals by the way.


    • Floyd Thursby on May 27, 2014 at 2:40 pm05/27/2014 2:40 pm

      • 000

      Good point Tom, a lot of times you wonder why something is and find out it’s because of the union pushing through a terrible state law. We have to pay $300 to use an auditorium for an evening via union janitors when any enterprising parent could find decent janitors for $50 and just pay cash, 5 parents pay $10 each, easy peasy, but no, you have to go by a state law. Same with librarians. We need to overturn these stupid laws and allow for more flexibility.

      • el on May 27, 2014 at 4:48 pm05/27/2014 4:48 pm

        • 000

        Uh, because, right, it would be TOTALLY AWESOME to have random people off the street paid illegally under the table to move school owned equipment and responsible for the good order of school facilities that have to be ready for kids the next day.

        What could go wrong?

    • el on May 27, 2014 at 4:55 pm05/27/2014 4:55 pm

      • 000

      I’m not sure I understand what you’ve been told or what solution you propose that will not suit.

      Districts can and do bring in part time people to perform library services, and many keep libraries open totally with volunteers. Districts also share librarians (and nurses and other professionals) across school sites.

      Yes, people are expensive. Honestly, school districts for the most part pay less than a prevailing wage and there’s not really any magic to be done to get a qualified full time person in less expensively.

      Individual districts may have different labor contracts that create other issues.

      • Jennifer on May 27, 2014 at 6:28 pm05/27/2014 6:28 pm

        • 000

        You get what you pay for, and if anyone deserves to be well paid it is certainly a qualified teacher. When you have a teacher librarian the school library becomes a classroom, complete with lessons. When a teacher is not employeed, you’d like to at least have someone with a library science degree. That said…regardless of who is working in the library, why on earth would any school district NOT take responsibility to screen and hire their own employees?! The district will be held accountable for the actions of that person. Who else would be employing these people, anyway?! Even a parent volunteer has to be screened before they’re allowed to volunteer in a classroom. That’s not a union stipulation, it’s a child-safety law!

        • el on May 28, 2014 at 3:21 pm05/28/2014 3:21 pm

          • 000

          To be clear, I am in complete agreement with you about the value and importance of a fully trained, full-time, site-dedicated credentialed librarian. But, I was addressing the comment about libraries that have been shuttered due to lack of same and the options.

          Schools have made some tough choices and library cuts have been among them. When you sit and view the options open at the district level, this is sometimes the least bad of a set of terrible options. It’s a symptom of systemically underfunding our school systems. We can’t run schools with volunteers doing essential jobs and expect that that is a sustainable, quality program.

          • tom on May 29, 2014 at 12:31 pm05/29/2014 12:31 pm

            • 000

            Now we’ve come full circle El – the chronic under funding of our schools. Even when the CA economy was much better the politicians did not provide enough money for public schools in favor of other “needs.” Because of this, well meaning and qualified parents have had to step in to volunteer for essential jobs. With the current governor, and his dreams of a hugely expensive, money-wasting high speed train, as well as the underfunded Calpers, Calstrs, and rising Medical expenses, we can expect other spending priorities that will continue to take money away from schools. Realistically we need to find ways to better use the limited resources we have. Since labor costs are by far the majority of school budgets (87% in our District), it’s a good place to look.

      • Patricia on May 28, 2014 at 11:12 pm05/28/2014 11:12 pm

        • 000

        It is one thing to just keep a library open with Para Professionals or even volunteers, but that is not nearly the educational benefit that a credential teacher librarian can offer students, teachers and parents. And why in a state such as California, do only the wealthy communities get this great educational benefit?

  8. Gary Ravani on May 27, 2014 at 12:49 pm05/27/2014 12:49 pm

    • 000

    Great article standing on its own. Opens up possibilities for a whole series of articles: “—” a Rare Find in CA Public Schools. Now that “librarians” are taken care of we can move on and fill in the blanks with: nurses, counselors, social workers, and actual working libraries open for meaningful hours during the school day and year. And then another series where the blanks are filled in with TEACHERS, administrators, and general adult employees around schools to assist students. Don’t want to forget those!

  9. el on May 27, 2014 at 8:40 am05/27/2014 8:40 am

    • 000

    Thank you for this. So many people don’t realize the full skill set of a librarian, that it’s not replaceable with even a network of smart and interested volunteers, that it’s not something that teachers can just cover for. It’s not just selecting and recommending books, but also knowing what books to remove given that most libraries have finite shelf space.

    Most kids aren’t lucky enough to be able to get to a public library of their own volition. The school library provides them with the independence to choose their own reading, which is essential to unlocking the vast vistas of human knowledge.

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