Being recognized by the American Association of School Librarians and by the Tuscaloosa City School librarians, quite honestly, is one of the greatest honors I have ever received. In June 2018 I joined AASL to receive this most prestigious award. It was in this meeting, I shared what I have learned as a superintendent by listening to and following the lead of our incredible library media specialists.
When I took over as superintendent of the Tuscaloosa City Schools, I spent time reflecting on our system’s work the past several years. In studying our data, I became more and more irritated. My research question was essentially, How can we have the resources we have in our system without having equally as high outcomes in our student achievement? I looked to see what we were doing too much of, like testing, and not enough of, like reading (for pleasure and with choice). It dawned on me that our schools have a powerful weapon in this fight for literacy that was mostly being underused. I looked to our library media specialists and that was the best decision I ever could have made.
I learned something listening to them. They taught me a lot about what we were missing. We lost the focus and the ability for our libraries to be the heartbeat of our schools. In fact, I was visiting one school one day when one of our lead librarians stopped me and said she had a gift for me. I was not sure what I did to deserve a gift, but I was intrigued. She came out of her library office with a book titled In Search of Wild Asparagus and handed it to me with a smile: “This book was just this year weeded from my library.” While I am sure this book was relevant to me when I was in school in 1988 (the date it was put into this particular library), the point to me was again clear: How can we want our students to excel when they do not have access to high-quality and current materials in the library?
What followed, for me, was a series of listening sessions with our system librarians. I made one simple request: put together an action plan for our system to review and consider.
We have the most incredible library media specialists who put energy, research, enthusiasm, and hard work into helping us frame our future as a system. These incredible educators developed an aggressive plan that puts them at the center of our literacy efforts. Their actions include building our library collections with system and community support, expanding library programming in the summer, revising the job descriptions for librarians in our system, having designated lead librarians, placing librarians on school and system leadership teams, partnering with reading coaches, and programming literacy events for our entire system. Their incredible work is what allows me to say that the Tuscaloosa City Schools is by far one of the most promising school systems for excellence in our country.
Here is what I know today. We must continue to fund libraries at high levels in our schools. Libraries can be the greatest strategy in bringing equity through access to our schools and students if they are funded appropriately.
How can we expect our students, especially our most vulnerable learners, to become proficient readers if we do not put high-quality and high-interest materials in our libraries?
I call on my superintendent colleagues and our political decision makers to begin to see an investment in libraries as an indispensable part of our work. Stronger libraries equal stronger readers. They become places where students can learn, imagine, create, and build. They provide personalization of learning for all students that we are sometimes not able to do in the classroom. Libraries are safe spaces for our students to explore, travel, and dream. I want this for my own children and the 10,500 students I serve every day.
It is my job as a superintendent to advocate for this powerful group of educators in our system. Libraries must be at the core of funding discussions as we move forward in our mission to improve outcomes for each and every student we serve.
To the library media specialist out there serving our students, I say thank you. Thank you on behalf of each child who enters the door of the library to be positively impacted by this amazing space in our schools with incredible professionals who motivate, teach, and inspire