There was much to celebrate in the historic five-year contract deal between Chicago Public School (CPS) teachers and the city that ended an 11-day Chicago Teachers Union strike on October 31. Among the wins: teacher pay raises, smaller class sizes, and a social worker and nurse in every school. But missing from those successes is the effort to stem the continuing and rapid reduction of librarians at public schools across the city.
Roughly 80% of the 514 district-run schools in the CPS system are without a librarian, and Nora Wiltse, the only CPS librarian at the bargaining table during the negotiations, says she believes the situation is likely to get worse under the new contract.
Wiltse, a librarian at Coonley Elementary School who has pressed for more funding for librarians since 2012, says there are only 108 full-time working librarians in the district. That’s down from 454 librarians in the 2012–2013 school year, the year of the last Chicago Teachers Union strike.
While the new contract commits funding to 120 schools in economically depressed parts of the city to create new positions—though Wiltse says the language of the contract allows the funds to be used for programming or materials, not necessarily for hiring new employees—principals are tasked with making tough decisions on where to allocate those dollars. They could opt to bring librarians back to their schools, but they likely won’t, Wiltse says. “This contract had a lot of really big wins for our students, but it’s not going to help the lack of librarians in our school system,” she says.
The upside, according to Wiltse, is that the walkout has helped raise awareness of the issues concerning librarians and is a “stepping stone to advocacy.”
She is one of about 15 librarians in the system actively advocating for reestablishing librarian positions. She is the last original member of the group, which formed in 2012. (She says the rest of the original members have been laid off or reassigned, or have moved.)
Hawthorne Elementary School librarian Lies Garner, who is a member of the advocacy group, says she carried a sign in the walkout stating that only 108 librarians were left in the system. “Parents’ jaws dropped when they saw that sign,” Garner says. “I think it’s positive that it brought awareness to the lack of librarians in schools, particularly at schools with lower-income families,” she says.
Wiltse adds that these schools, largely on the South and West sides of the city, are losing librarians and libraries faster than in other parts of Chicago. “It’s an equity issue,” she says. “We’re not providing access to these students that need [it] the most, that need libraries the most,” she says.
Nixon Elementary School librarian Leslie Westerberg says discretion given to principals on where to spend the money creates an environment where competing interests are “pitted against one another.” Says Westerberg: “Honestly, I can’t fathom that anybody is going to add a librarian.”
Some parents in more affluent neighborhoods have volunteered at their school library as a temporary fix, but it’s not the same as having a certified librarian who can order and categorize new materials, work on programming, and connect students to resources that will foster a lifelong love of reading and learning, Westerberg says.
Many schools in economically depressed areas don’t have the luxury of attracting volunteers, she adds. Libraries run by volunteers also are often closed when no one is available to staff them, she says.
Westerberg says she’s had students come in from other schools looking for books because the library at their school is closed. Recently, a student from another school came in and said their school does have a library but it’s usually closed and books don’t circulate. For those libraries, Westerberg says, it doesn’t take long for the collection to become outdated.
Garner has heard from parents over the years who say that her book suggestions turned their children into readers.
Wiltse says the advocacy group is considering its next step in pushing for more resources for school libraries and urges parents to talk about the issue with principals and school administrators.
In the meantime, CPS librarians are back at work helping students. Westerberg says the contract was “disappointing” and the strike “took a lot out of me.” Now she just wants to focus on her students, she says.
“I have 750 kids who rely on me,” says Westerberg, “and I’m trying to be the best librarian I can be for them.”