Chances are, fewer Wichita schools will have licensed librarians this fall despite a vote by teachers and school board members to save librarians from the chopping block.
District officials say library vacancies at a dozen schools – four middle schools, seven elementary schools and one K-8 – could be filled by unlicensed para-educators or clerks instead of certified librarians because there aren’t enough qualified candidates for the jobs.
“It doesn’t help that they were on the cut list,” said Shannon Krysl, head of human resources for the Wichita district.
“It’s hard to find certified librarians, and then there’s the fear that those positions could be eliminated” in future budget cuts, she said.
“It’s understandable, but that does make it a challenge for us.”
This year, librarians at 12 Wichita schools have retired, moved or taken other positions within the district. Last month, officials “double-posted” those jobs online and elsewhere, Krysl said, seeking certified library media specialists as well as para-educators or clerks.
If principals can’t find librarians with a teaching degree, she said, they likely will staff their libraries with noncertified employees.
Library advocates say that’s bad news for students. Certified librarians have master’s degrees in addition to teaching certificates, and they work with classroom teachers to develop research assignments, teach research skills and internet safety, and more.
But the development is part of a statewide trend: Kansas schools have been shedding librarians at an alarming rate.
Over the past 15 years, the number of certified library media specialists in Kansas public schools has gone from more than 1,000 to 688, a reduction of about 31 percent, according to data provided by the Kansas Department of Education.
1,002certified librarians in Kansas public schools in 2000
688certified librarians in Kansas public schools in 2016
“The climate is kind of scary,” said Kathie Buckman, director of the library science program at Emporia State University.
“A person goes, ‘Let’s see, do I really want to go into that when I see that those are the first positions that are going to get cut?’ Do they really want to go that route?”
Five years ago in Wichita, 10 high school librarians were among 278 positions eliminated as the district grappled with a $30 million budget shortfall.
High schools replaced librarians with clerks, who manage day-to-day operations but don’t conduct planned lessons on internet safety, research skills, digital presentation tools or other topics.
The district pledged to keep librarians at elementary and middle schools, but today, fewer than two-thirds of Wichita’s 15 middle schools have certified librarians.
Coleman, Marshall, Mayberry and Pleasant Valley middle schools have vacancies for librarians that may be filled with clerks or para-educators.
Truesdell – the city’s largest middle school, with 960 students – staffs its library with a clerk rather than a certified librarian, as does Stucky Middle School, which has nearly 600 students.
Wichita schools with library vacancies: Coleman, Marshall, Mayberry and Pleasant Valley middle schools; Christa McAuliffe Academy (K-8); Enders, Franklin, Payne, Peterson, Spaght, Stanley and Jackson elementary schools.
Wendy Fjorden, a former librarian at East High, said students lose out on important instruction when schools eliminate certified librarians.
“What’s changed at the high school level is there is not a teacher-librarian teaching about databases, teaching about credible resources, teaching about peer-reviewed journals or technology presentation skills,” said Fjorden, the district’s instructional coach for libraries.
“English teachers do the best they can in the small amount of time they have. But they’re overloaded with their own standards that they have to teach, so … they can’t get as in-depth as I know they would want to.”
Earlier this year, district officials said they would be forced to eliminate about 85 school librarians and data leaders if teachers didn’t agree to a calendar change designed to trim about $3 million from the budget.
Teachers voted in favor of the change, which school board members subsequently approved. But the 11th-hour reprieve left many school librarians feeling insecure about their future.
“It was demoralizing more than anything … and it was really stressful,” said Laurie Smith, a librarian at Price-Harris Elementary School.
Four Wichita librarians left for other districts, and a few took classroom teaching jobs “because they just didn’t want to go through this again,” Smith said.
“We’re all trying to take the summer off of worrying about it. But I just have a feeling if there’s more cuts next year, we’re going to be back in the forefront.”
What librarians do
Lauree Moore was a second-grade teacher at Adams Elementary School before she decided in 2008 to work in the school library while pursuing her library degree.
“I’ve always been a heavy reader, and books have just been a huge part of my life,” Moore said. “Just the thought of being in the library and encouraging kids to read – it was really appealing.”
At most Wichita elementary schools, students visit the library with their class once a week for 45 minutes. During that time, certified librarians teach lessons that incorporate or enrich what kids are studying in the classroom.
Because many of Moore’s students don’t have access to books at home, she first teaches youngsters how to properly care for books. “Before that, I was getting books back with footprints on them,” she says. “One had a slice of cheese in the back cover.”
With the library’s collection of 12 computers, Moore teaches children the basics of internet safety and how to behave online. She teaches older students how to find credible sources and cite them in research.
Along with their regular library duties, some elementary school librarians also serve as technology coaches, school data specialists, testing coordinators or textbook wranglers.
Last year, Moore helped a class of third-graders research rainforest animals, which led to a discussion about endangered species. One student uncovered information about the vaquita – a rare species of porpoise that lives in the Gulf of California – and before long, the class was learning about new types of fishing nets that catch shrimp but allow dolphins and sea turtles to escape unharmed.
“That’s what librarians do: We’re the ones that give them the tools and say, ‘What do you think?’ ” Moore said. “So often kids are led to the information and not given a chance to explore and question.”
Smith, the Price-Harris librarian, spends one lunch period each week with dozens of students who sign up for the school’s Battle of the Books program. They quiz one another on books from the required reading list and talk about genre, setting, plot and characters.
The thing she loves most, though, is watching kids go from avoiding books to loving them.
“A lot of the little boys tend to be reluctant readers,” Smith said.
She points them to her stash of “Star Wars” and action-hero books, which most pick up eagerly. After they pore through those, she directs them to chapter books with adventure themes, such as Gary Paulsen’s “Hatchet,” or an addictive series like “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”
Gail Becker, supervisor of library media for the Wichita district, said instilling a passion for reading can have a huge effect on a child’s education, and librarians recognize that.
If you can catch those reluctant readers in elementary school, you can change them, and our librarians know how to do that.
Gail Becker, supervisor of library media for Wichita schools
“In a library, kids get to choose what they want to read, and that’s a big thing to kids,” Becker said. “If you can catch those reluctant readers in elementary school, you can change them, and our librarians know how to do that.”
Greg Jones, spokesman for United Teachers of Wichita, said the group has encouraged district officials to “advertise as aggressively as they can” to fill library vacancies, including letting classroom teachers know they can take library jobs while working toward certification.
“This isn’t the old check-out-the-book days. There’s a lot of teaching that goes on by librarians, and a certified teacher is essential,” Jones said.
Even so, he understands why educators might avoid library positions. Along with worries about job security, completing a library master’s program through a state university can cost $12,000 or more, and the district doesn’t underwrite it.
Depending on a teacher’s years of experience, an additional degree could increase his or her annual salary by $2,000 to $5,000 – but only if a new teacher’s contract includes a salary schedule that rewards additional experience and education.
“I think they feel that they’ve been very disrespected,” Jones said of the recent budget battle that put Wichita school librarians in the crosshairs.
Teachers feel it’s very risky to be a librarian in the Wichita public schools, and that’s a tragedy for our students.
Greg Jones, spokesman for United Teachers of Wichita
“I think teachers feel it’s very risky to be a librarian in the Wichita public schools, and that’s a tragedy for our students.”
Buckman, of Emporia State, said that after more than a decade of cuts to school libraries, the educational pendulum may be swinging back toward certified librarians.
As baby boomers retire, job prospects for librarians are improving, she said, and people with library degrees are courted by various industries that value critical thinking, research and organizational skills.
“I do think that people are seeing the error of their ways, and they are saying, ‘OK, wait a minute, that was a shortsighted idea,’ ” Buckman said.
It’s all money-driven, and I understand that. But I do think that some have decided getting rid of librarians wasn’t a good plan. This didn’t work, so let’s try to fix it.
Kathie Buckman, Emporia State University
“It’s all money-driven, and I understand that. But I do think that some have decided getting rid of librarians wasn’t a good plan. This didn’t work, so let’s try to fix it.”