.Nonprofit Fights For Oakland School Libraries

One-third of the libraries in the city's public schools remain closed due to budget cuts, but a nonprofit is working to reopen them.

It’s hard to keep track of the many educational programs that no longer exist in California because of budget cuts enacted during the past decade. The elimination of adult education in local school districts is one example. School libraries have also lost significant financial support. In Oakland, one-third of the public school libraries have been closed for years, and another third are only open part-time with limited staffing — mostly by volunteers.

Indeed, the school librarian, like the school counselor, has become an endangered species in Oakland and other cities throughout the state. My kids graduated from Oakland public schools in the 1990s. As lackluster and sad as their schools seemed back then, at least their libraries were still open and staffed.

Depending on where and when you grew up, you probably had a library in your elementary school. And by the time you got to high school, you could depend on finding a good selection of encyclopedias, non-fiction books, periodicals, and novels. You could talk to the librarian when you couldn’t find what you wanted, and you learned about the Dewey Decimal system.

But that’s no longer the case for many Oakland schoolchildren. “A child could enroll today in a district elementary school and graduate from an OUSD high school without ever having the benefit of a school library,” said Oakland city Library Commissioner Ruby Bernstein, recalling a quote from Kari Hatch, the executive director of Friends of the Oakland Public School Libraries.

Currently, Oakland Unified School District only funds two full-time and two part-time librarians for the entire city. OUSD’s Ann Gallagher — one of the full-time librarians — oversees the district’s libraries, librarians, technicians, and volunteers. She told me that California now ranks fiftieth in the country in terms of its ratio of students to librarians — and it’s a distant fiftieth. Some California school districts, however, have managed to keep most of their libraries open. Berkeley is using library technicians and San Francisco has held onto its librarians by splitting them among schools.

Gallagher said school libraries are particularly important because “children, especially children living in poverty, need access to free-choice reading,” and that “reading is more than drill and practice.” She believes that teachers are already too overloaded with curriculum tasks to also act as de facto librarians. Librarians also help train students to develop research skills in order to prepare them for college and careers.

Given these issues, Gallagher is working closely with Friends of the Oakland Public School Libraries (FOPSL), whose mission is to resurrect the city’s closed school libraries. FOPSL started in 2009 as a dedicated group of volunteers in the Montclair Community Action Committee who organized a book drive for schools that had outdated collections. When they realized what a huge undertaking it would be to live up to their motto — “Every child deserves a quality school library” — they decided to incorporate as a nonprofit. From 2009 to 2011, before they incorporated, they managed to reopen eight public school libraries, including two at middle schools — all of them in Oakland’s flatland neighborhoods.

Hills schools have managed to reopen their libraries, hire librarians, and buy supplies thanks to fundraising from parents. Many well-to-do hills parents also have the time to volunteer in their libraries. FOPSL, by contrast, wants to reopen libraries in neighborhoods in which parents have fewer resources.

“Our goal is tangible and achievable,” Hatch said. So far, the group has worked to reopen more than twenty school libraries with the help of grants, community donations, corporate sponsorships, and partnerships with faith-based organizations. The reopened libraries also have received funding from Measure G, a parcel tax approved by Oakland voters in 2008. Measure G provides more than $55 per pupil, but the measure’s oversight committee has made the funding available only to elementary and middle schools, and not high schools, due to the limited amount of funds available.

Currently, Skyline High is the only high school in the district with a full-time librarian. The other high schools have decided to fund other essential services, although they’re still hoping to reopen their libraries in the future.

In an editorial last October in the Fremont High School student newspaper, the Green and Gold, students bemoaned their shuttered library as a place where rats roamed. However, construction has begun refurbishing the space, and there’s hope that it will be reopened next school year. Students told me that Castlemont’s library has a computer area, which they use for things like applying for college loans online, but that the rest of it is closed off. Oakland Tech has a clerk who can open the library on occasion, and Oakland High’s library is currently being used for online classes and as a meeting space.

The state takeover of Oakland public schools is partly to blame for the demise of local school libraries. In addition, budget cutbacks as the result of an education “flexibility” spending plan approved under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger have made things worse. The change gave school districts more authority on how to spend taxpayer dollars. Many districts, including Oakland, decided to focus on basic education. That led to the elimination of adult education, along with funding for libraries, not only in Oakland but also in other cities.

But there is hope. Superintendent Tony Smith is currently considering a Library Equity Plan, which would reallocate Measure G funds. A pilot project to hire six professionally trained librarians is gaining traction with district administrators, while the reallocation plan would offer sixty district employees the opportunity to be retrained as library technicians who would be able to staff the newly stocked and refurbished libraries.

For those interested in joining or contributing to FOPSL, check out the group’s website at FOPSL.org.


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