Unpacking ESSA for the Library Ecosystem

Program offers background on the Every Student Succeeds Act and tips on how to build effective coalitions

June 26, 2016

From left: Marci Merola of ALA's Office for Library Advocacy, and Leslie Preddy, president of the American Association of School Librarians.
From left: Marci Merola of ALA's Office for Library Advocacy, and Leslie Preddy, president of the American Association of School Librarians.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) offers new ways for public, school, and academic libraries to work together. At the June 24 program “Unpacking ESSA for the Ecosystem,” sponsored by the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), attendees received helpful background on the law and real-life examples on forming coalitions and involving community stakeholders to make the most of the new law’s funding opportunities.

AASL President Leslie Preddy opened the program by emphasizing the spectrum from public library to school library to academic library in each learner’s life. Communities with strong libraries have increased student success. Vailey Oehlke, Public Library Association president and director of libraries at Multnomah County (Oreg.) Library, explained how the provisions in ESSA are a victory for all libraries, cultivating a love of reading, inspiring curiosity and lifelong learning. Ann Campion Riley, president of the Association of College and Research Libraries, called the law a victory for school library community and a victory for America, as a more educated populace means more educated voters.

Emily Sheketoff, executive director of ALA’s Washington Office, traced the history of the bill, from being signed into law in 1965 as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, through 2002’s No Child Left Behind Act, which did not mention school librarians at all. According to Sheketoff, that was the reason for that law’s dismal failure.

The theory guiding ESSA, Sheketoff continued, was that the federal government should not be telling states how to do education, which gives states more freedom to design education programs with the block grant. “We need to fit into that theory. We are smart, effective, and have people’s support, but we need to let them know,” she told the crowd. “Everyone loves their school librarian, but love does not pay the bills.”

Within ESSA is the Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation (LEARN) Act, which specifically lists public and school libraries as eligible entities. Sheketoff compared the process to a banquet table filled with food. Librarians need to come to the table and get their share before someone else does.

State and local officials need to be educated on library issues, which means librarians have to be prepared to tell them about the work being done in schools and libraries. For example, Sheketoff said, “nobody works with children before age 5 better than the library.”

She added that ALA has submitted comments to US Department of Education during every step of the legislative process, and these and other talking points are available for librarians to use and expand with examples from their own experiences. “Nothing is more compelling than a good story, except a good story that’s married to good data,” she said.

Two presenters gave their firsthand accounts of doing the kind of creative relationship-building that AASL, PLA, and ACRL recommend for reaching out to stakeholders to secure ESSA funding. Dorcas Hand is director of libraries for a private school in Houston, but she helped create studentsneedlibrariesinhisd.org to help advocate for libraries in the city’s public school district after the number of librarians in schools and libraries started dropping drastically. The website is organized so that librarians and other advocates can find information and talking points easily. Hand noted that just showing up at school board meetings means a lot. Her group also began providing data to the school board, such as the location of book deserts in the city, which has helped them make their case.

Nashville (Tenn.) Public Library Director Kent Oliver spoke about the Nashville Limitless Libraries project, a collaboration between the city’s public and school libraries. The program began in 2009 and continues to develop and expand—Nashville Public Library and Metro Nashville Public Schools will soon have a joint online catalog.

Oliver touted another successful program: the Nashville After-Zone Alliance (NAZA), a special environment for students entering 9th grade. Nashville has a 33% high school dropout rate, and 75% of public school students receive free or reduced-price lunch. NAZA is a collaboration between the library, local schools, and community groups. Based on Providence, Rhode Island’s AfterZone, the program provides an hour of academic help and an hour of programming after school. Programs can be delivered offsite (such as at a YMCA), and most sites have food or snacks because many of the kids won’t have another meal until the next morning.

Marci Merola, director of ALA’s Office for Library Advocacy, closed the session by telling attendees that they are in an important window for action now; ESSA has been signed into law but appropriations have not been made yet. She offered tips for brainstorming message development, and AASL provided worksheets on developing a coalition.


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