Tuesday, January 01, 2008


by Angela Caputo, Staff writer | Southtown Star/Chicago Sun Times

December 23, 2007 - On trips to the school library, Lieb Elementary fifth-grader Salvatore Rizzo rarely visits the reference section anymore because books like encyclopedias, he says, are filled with "old news."

Instead, the 10-year-old prefers to log on to the Internet to do his school research. So he's not bothered at all by a decision to swap librarians for technology instructors in his school district this year.

But as librarians increasingly are swapped for aides or technology instructors, and literature takes a back seat to technology, library professionals are pushing back. They're calling on state education officials to require all Illinois school districts to employ certified librarians, also known as information specialists, who are trained to develop both print and electronic curriculum.

Local educators are balking at the plan, though, because they say it's too expensive to hire certified librarians and it's hard to find qualified candidates.

"Any time there's a rule that requires districts to hire, and there's no funding provided, it's a problem," said Ben Schwarm, a legislative director with the Springfield-based Illinois Association of School Boards. If approved, school districts would have until 2010 to comply with the policy.

The proposal comes at a critical time for school districts that increasingly have eyed library staff for cuts as a way to save money while, at the same time, expanding their collections to include computers, interactive whiteboards and other forms of technology.

"This is what a library once was," said Greg Porod, principal of Lieb Elementary in Bridgeview, as he ran a hand across the top of a steel shelf lined with children's books.

"And this is what we're trying to merge," he said pointing across the media center to a couple of dozen computers in the room.

Summit Hill School District 161 has accomplished that by hiring library aides to handle the day-to-day operations, while a single district-wide library director oversees the media center curriculum. The decision has freed up money to hire technology instructors in each of the Frankfort district's schools, Supt. Keith Pain said.

"I don't think our kids are losing out now," said Pain, who estimates it would cost an extra $300,000 to add certified librarians to each school. "I'd rather have the choice to spend that money on small class sizes," he said.

But for a cash-strapped district such as Ridgeland School District 122, the decision to replace librarians with technology instructors was made to save money and wire students into digital learning. Now, during periodic visits to the media center, students typically are shepherded to computers where they use the Internet for research.

Locating books, unshelving them and then flipping through pages is pretty much a waste of time, fifth-grader Jezmine Mizyed said.

"It's quicker (to) just go to the Internet," the 10-year-old said.

Retired school librarian Lou Ann Jacobs, who serves on the board of the Illinois School Library Media Association, said that's just the sort of narrow instruction she's hoping the new training mandate would help to reverse.

"There's the curriculum end of (being a librarian), and that's missing when you don't have certified folks," Jacobs said, who added a school librarian's primary role should be to teach research strategies and to instill a love of reading.

"Would (certified media specialists) help students learn more? Yes," Porod said. "But they're still gaining with what we have." In District 122, the technology instructors are responsible for maintaining the book collections of each school's library and helping children check out materials.

Students with a strong media center in their school perform better on standardized tests, according to a research report the Illinois School Library Media Association sponsored in 2005.

"This is not a luxury. It's at the center of learning," said National-Louis University education professor Gail Bush, who is overseeing the launch of a new program to train information specialists. School librarian certification at National-Louis follows the industry standard requiring 24 credit hours of coursework in addition to a teaching certification.

"It creates a standard that helps to build a better educational environment," she said.

Because certified librarians are in such short supply - nearly one in four Illinois school districts reported a staffing shortage last year, according to figures compiled by the state board of education - administrators anticipate a new mandate would make it even tougher to fill the jobs where candidates can be scarce.

A search for a certified media specialist this school year in South Holland School District 150 yielded only two qualified candidates, according to Supt. Jerry Jordan. In contrast, classroom positions usually attract 25 or so candidates, he said.

And the person who took the job recently decided she'll stay only through June. So already the district is seeking applicants for next fall.

"You've got to start looking," Jordan said. "It's difficult to find someone."

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