OAKLAND, Calif. - Every weekday, dozens of students at Oakland Tech stream into the school library, sitting at tables surrounded by book shelves, studying and most likely, finishing up last-minute homework from the night before.
On the surface, it looks like any school library.
But there are some big differences: High schoolers are not allowed to check out any books, because there is no librarian. Big signs on the walls remind them of this. Not only that, but most of the books are outdated; some of their copyrights are decades old. Many are yellowed and tattered.
And the scene is replicated across the Oakland Unified School District.
“A library is one of the most essential parts of a school,” said Antonio Todd, an 11th grader at Tech. “We go there every day. But it’s really just a silent place like a study hall. No one ever goes to check out books there is no librarian there. So, it’s kind of just a dead spot.”
Thirty percent of OUSD libraries are closed
California has the worst student to library ratio in the country. In Oakland, the library situation is exacerbated, as 30 percent of its 80 school libraries are closed.
At the high school level it's even worse. Fourteen of OUSD’s 17 high school libraries are closed. And the remaining three are run by a teacher, not a credentialed librarian.
Of the libraries that are open, many stay afloat only because volunteers and PTAs have been able to raise enough money to finance them.
To compare, San Francisco and San Jose school districts do not face this same predicament. All of the school libraries in their districts are open. San Francisco Unified employs 94 credentialed teacher-librarians; Oakland has five.
Last week, OUSD eliminated the head librarian position
And the situation just got more dire in Oakland. In the wake of a sudden need to slash $9 million from the district’s budget during the middle of the school year, the OUSD board last week laid off the head librarian, Amy Cheney, in order to remain fiscally solvent and avoid a state takeover. Parents had been urging the district to "chop from the top," and Cheney's position indeed is at the central administration level.
This will be the first time that the district librarian’s position has been eliminated in at least 20 years.
Cheney will receive her formal notice on Jan. 17 and her last day of work is on March 16. Cheney was told by the district not to speak publicly on the matter and to refer all questions to her supervisor.
District administrators said they hoped to reinstate Cheney’s position for the next school year, but they also acknowledged there is no guarantee of that. In addition, administrators vowed to continue trying to open more school libraries in the coming years, without being specific about the funding source, other than parcel tax money, which is already stretched thin.
For this fiscal year, Oakland’s 80 public schools have been allocated to recieve $1.7 million a year in library funding from Measure G, a 2008 citywide voter-approved ballot initiative. But a district review shows that many school principals during the past decade have chosen to spend the money on other programs and priorities — not on libraries.
"When there was a need, it got filled," said Bradley Mart, a parent at Hillcrest Elementary School, where the PTA holds an auction to pay for the librarian there, and who chairs the Measure G Oversight Committee. "No one really was watching. The money went to where it was needed."
Advocates for libraries are upset.
“Without a district librarian, I do not understand how we are going to reopen libraries in our schools,” said Ruby De Tie, principal of Frick Impact Academy, which serves a population of children — 93 percent of whom are eligible for the free and reduced lunch program. Her school had no library for ten years.
A change in how Measure G money is spent
That all changed two years ago when Cheney came on board to make sure that Measure G parcel tax money went to Frick Impact Academy and staff it properly. Up until her tenure, principals got to decide how to spend the money. Now, the person in her position reviews how the money should be spent, to make sure it actually goes toward libraries.
Today, Frick’s library is a gleaming gem, complete with bright furniture and crisp new books. That’s mostly because Cheney used her connections to get publishers to donate 4,000 books and her oversight to make sure the school hired a librarian with a master’s in library sciences, De Tie said.
De Tie also disputed the figure that 30 percent of Oakland school libraries are closed.
“No, I think the number is way higher,” she said. “I do not think the number of teacher librarians are at 70 percent of our schools.”
De Tie said having a librarian matters. “Just purchasing the books is a full-time job,” she said. “When 80 percent of your kids are not reading at grade level? The outcome is not going to change for kids.”
Because of Frick’s librarian Andrea Kneeland, 11-year-old Edgar Penaloza is reading for the first time. He said he had never been to any kind of library before walking in the doors to one at his school.
“I just stayed in my house playing games,” he said. “I never experienced books.”
Kneeland saw that Edgar was interested in Naruto anime, and knew there was an entire graphic novel series about the characters. She introduced Edgar to the books and now the sixth-grader takes out 18 books a week.
“I started reading them,” he said. “And after that, I fell in love with books.”
Librarians help young minds sort out fiction from fact
Advocates argue that librarians are more than just people who check out books and “shush” kids to be quiet. Many argue that a librarians’ research skills are even more important than ever to help young minds sort out fact from fiction. Even with more books going online, librarians have expertise in navigating virtual reading material from universities across the globe and have specific skills in finding the most appropriate research material.
“Librarians really have a whole field of expertise in data bases and research skills,” said Matt Colley, a 9th grade English and history teacher at Oakland Tech. “We know from a number of different studies that schools that have functioning libraries and highly trained librarians have better literacy scores. They have better writing. They have better college admission rates.”
And then there’s the intangible power of a librarian — who often forms special relationships with students because of his or her role outside the classroom.
“If I tell a student something, they’re probably not going to listen,” said Sonja Travick, the leadership government teacher at Oakland Tech. “But a librarian is like a grandparent with special knowledge that students end up valuing and hearing. A librarian often has a softer approach who explains the why of things.”
Kari Hatch, executive director of the Friend of Oakland Public School Libraries, has been helping and watching the school library situation in Oakland for years. Her organization has donated $66,000 in books and supplies and 30,000 volunteer hours to the district’s libraries over the last several years. She’s taken portables full of junk and turned them into usable spaces to learn and read.
“The lack of library services in OUSD is appalling,” she said. “As you know, schools in Oakland’s low-income neighborhoods are often under resourced and ironically libraries often fall low on the fiscal priority list.”
She added: “I don’t think OUSD is committed to libraries yet. There is some movement but there is a real belief that it is up to the principal to prioritize that.”
In addition to what her organization does, PTAs in more affluent neighborhoods end up raising tens of thousands of dollars from parents for their school libraries. For example, fundraisers at Claremont and Hillcrest middle schools this year raised enough money to pay for part-time librarians, or at least library clerks, at those schools.
Both of those money sources complement Measure G money.
OUSD is faced with tough financial choices
David Chambliss, Oakland Unified’s deputy chief of teaching and learning and Cheney’s supervisor, acknowledged that having 30 percent of the district’s libraries closed is not something to be proud of.
“No, I am not,” he said, answering whether he was OK with the number of closed libraries. “We have the expectation that there should be an open library in every school.” Libraries are “absolutely important” to the district, he added.
He also said that he was not happy to have laid off the head librarian, who plays a “critical role” for the district. “That’s another situation where we’re looking at some very difficult funding choices,” he said.
Chambliss said he found himself in an unfortunate predicament this month. Union rules do not allow him to lay off certain staff members during the middle of the year, so he was forced to make cuts from a limited pool of personnel. And the district librarian’s job fell into that category. He said he hopes to reinstate the position by July 1. But he also acknowledged he couldn’t promise that would happen.
“That’s the challenge I face as a leader to sometimes make contradictory choices,” he said. “Our goal would be to open more next year. I can’t predict in our current budget circumstance how many that would be.”
Chambliss said that he is also displeased with the current state of school library affairs. But that it’s just a matter of money. Opening a high school library costs anywhere between $250,000 and $400,000 a year, he said. The reason so many high schools in Oakland don’t have school libraries, he said, is because they face a “broader array of more difficult choices, which makes the prioritizing around libraries more difficult.”
How the money was supposed to have been spent
In 2008, Oakland voters passed Measure G, a tax that generates $21 million a year. Of that, $11 million is currently going toward basic school support, $5 is earmarked for class size reduction, $2 million is slated toward elementary education and $1.7 million is supposed to go toward libraries.
Except that it doesn’t always.
A a review at the district level provided in a May 2016-2018 Measure G report showed that many schools were using their portion of that money on items not specific to the library. Those purchases include textbooks, literacy intervention packages and technology specific to first- second- and third-graders and not the whole school, the report found. For example, Oakland Tech and other high schools received $42,000 apiece last year, but it’s unclear, at least from looking at their libraries, what happened to that money, especially when those libraries remain closed and unstaffed.
Central allocation of funds vs. "site-based" funding
Until two years ago, there were also no strict guidelines on how individual schools should use the library funds. Under Cheney, the district decided to change its approach and crack down on the expenditures, ensuring that Measure G money was used only for five approved library-centric categories. The shift went from “site-based funding” to “centrally allocated” funding, where the district librarian approves the spending.
San Francisco follows this centrally funded model, although individual principals can use their discretion on whether they want to spend the per-pupil funding on books, technology or other library-related resources.
Students want to improve the situation
At Oakland Tech, a handful of students have formed the Students for Library Improvement group after looking around and seeing all the books that they weren’t allowed to check out and the empty librarian’s chair that has been collecting dust.
“We aim to make the library more accessible for students,” said Megan Ma, a 10th grader.
“We realized that our library, there was just nothing there,” said classmate Cameron Park. “It’s just used as a hangout place, not a library.”
Along with Katie Barr and Sally Garretson, the four are trying to raise awareness of the issue and spread the word to their friends about what the proper library could look like.
Because right now, they say they’re facing a pretty big problem.
“Yeah, we have to find sources on our own. Teachers do their best in training us to find credible sources but it’s really the job of the librarian,” Sally said. “We’re missing out.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: Lisa Fernandez has two children who attend schools in the Oakland Unified School District.