School Libraries for EQUITY: Do What’s Right for ALL Our Students

By Cynthia Ramos, Librarian, East Early College High School (HISD)
Winner, Librarian of the Year given by Houston Association of School Librarians
This post is an adaptation of her speech at the HASL Luncheon where she was named Librarian of the Year for HISD.

  • A girl in fourth grade, drawn to a book of fairy tales, was having an internal conflict of whether to gather her courage and borrow it from her teacher or not.
  • The same girl in sixth grade longingly looked in a locked glass cabinet filled with new and dust-free books, comparable to goodies stuck in a broken machine.
  • That girl in high school, with only four other students, was assigned a research project; the teacher said “not everyone can do it”…But her librarian was kind. She allowed her to take home reference books as long as she returned them early the following morning.

These moments reflect younger versions of me, growing up in a small town in the southwestern part of the Philippines.  I never knew a librarian when I was in elementary school; thus, I could not have dreamed of becoming one at that time. I remember there were books in glass cabinets in the principal’s office but there was nobody to check them out nor anyone to talk about them and encourage us to read. But I have always loved stories! I grew up listening to my father’s travel and work anecdotes and my mother’s supernatural, or rather ghostly, encounters. But then I needed more, so I graduated to reading literary magazines in Filipino, which I would borrow from my best friend, Filipino comics that could be rented from neighborhood store stalls, newspapers that my father brought home at the end of the day, and textbooks that contained short stories from school. I didn’t know “children’s books”, like the Narnia Chronicles, The Giver and Bridge to Terabithia existed, so reading Mills and Boon, Harlequin Romances and Barbara Cartland novels just came naturally… in 6th grade (!) because of me being unaware of what was “age-appropriate”.

About three decades later, I find myself in a position where I can impact student reading and learning, and I reflect on my own experiences to guide me in my library practice. I look back on that fourth grader, whose teacher never offered to lend a book, and think that no child should ever feel hesitant and unwelcome to borrow one, so I strive to be approachable, to create a warm and welcoming library space, and to reach out to both avid and reluctant readers. I imagine that sixth grader, who felt restricted from touching those books, and vow to make all library resources and services accessible to everyone in my campus. I think of that high school student and her research project and realize how inequitable that situation was for the other children, so I commit to help ALL my students develop their research skills, as often as needed, at any stage of their high school life. And I remember my librarian and have this understanding that some rules can be broken because at the heart of school librarianship is student service.

I am at a point in my life where I truly feel that this is exactly where I am needed. I love and enjoy my job. I feel that in my own small ways, obvious or subtle, I impact my students’ educational experience. However, there is a fact in HISD that I find disturbing: the absence of libraries and/ or librarians in many schools, including that of my 2nd grade son. (As of the beginning of the school year 2015-2016, thirty-five libraries are closed and only 84 are staffed with certified librarians in a district with 249 schools.) On Mother’s Day this year, he handed me a card he created in class. He wrote his “I love you” ‘s, and on the lower right hand corner, he added, “ + (plus) mom, you are my best librarian.”  That statement would have been more heartwarming were it not for the unfortunate fact that I am the only school librarian he knows. He went to a Pre-K school in the year when their certified librarian was re-assigned to a classroom. Currently, he goes to an elementary school with a library staffed with a clerk whose duty only includes checking out books to students. Isn’t it glaringly ironic that while I work hard to support and enrich my students’ learning, my son, who attends the same district that I work in, does not receive the same library access and services that I provide my students? Isn’t it disturbing that my experience of lack of resources and library access three decades ago in a remote town, in a third world country is being experienced by hundreds of students in the 21st century, in a bustling, modern city, in a first world country?

We have to do what’s right for ALL of our students, including the ones who don't have certified librarians on their campuses right now. We push for EQUITY in education by advocating for the ones who do not have access to libraries nor are served with the expertise of a librarian who will guide them to become lifelong readers, independent learners and effective users of information. Let us establish a true partnership among fellow teachers, parents, administrators, and other policy makers so that students in every school in every neighborhood are given the same access to resources and services that will help them succeed in academics and in life. And for us librarians, I believe that one of the best ways to declare our advocacy to this cause is make our work shine on our own campus, so that other principals can see what they are missing. More power to us as we continue to fulfill our mission!

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