Part of a series of case studies produced by Digital Promise examining the work of members in our League of Innovative Schools. Click here for more info on the League. To stay up to date on future case studies, sign up for our email newsletter.
As school districts confront budget constraints and cuts, one of the first places administrators often look for savings is the school library. Numerous districts, large and small, have cut librarian staffing to half-time or eliminated positions entirely. The number of school librarians dropped almost 8 percent to barely 50,000 between 2007 and 2011, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s one for every two schools.
These cuts can impact both students and teachers. Libraries may remain open, but they lack trained educators to support students. This despite a technological landscape that makes information literacy more important than ever. Student research increasingly occurs outside of the library and with the advent of digital content, new standards, and 1:1 computing, teachers need librarians to help navigate these new choices.
For these reasons, Vancouver Public Schools in Vancouver, Washington, is investing in its librarians while others are cutting back.
A cohort of 33 teacher-librarians is viewed as indispensable to the district’s vision of a technology-infused path to improved outcomes for students. After the community passed a $24 million technology levy in 2013, the district began its weLearn 1:1 initiative, which by 2017 will provide all teachers and students in grades 3-12 with an electronic device in a flexible learning environment, and a personalized digital curriculum.
Teacher-librarians at VPS play a crucial role in this digital transformation and other strategic initiatives. As a result, they are expanding their role to spend more time in the classroom, curating digital content and lesson plans with teachers, teaching digital citizenship to students, and even emerging as technology experts within their schools.
VPS Superintendent Steve Webb considers teacher-librarians among the district’s visionaries. Their story offers a blueprint for maximizing the impact of libraries and librarians on student learning.
While VPS has historically supported school libraries and librarians, the district still has faced difficult decisions. Vancouver is not a wealthy district; in a diverse, blue-collar community, more than half of its 23,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
A decade ago, after several librarians retired and the district’s budget continued to tighten, it considered not filling positions at several elementary schools. At the time, librarians reported feeling out of the loop and disconnected from district leaders.
The teacher-librarian cohort banded together and came up with a plan to reassert their relevance in the district. Mark Ray, a high school librarian, was tapped to lead the cohort and better understand how librarians could fulfill the district’s strategic goals (Ray is now the district’s director of instructional technology and library services). For the first time, district leaders and librarians were in the same room, talking about topics of shared interest and importance, Ray says. Those conversations led to significant increases in responsibility for teacher-librarians, from digital literacy to support of instructional quality.
New roles for teacher-librarians in Vancouver
To replenish the talent pipeline for librarians, the district worked with nearby Portland State University to offer a one-year library certification program for educators as they worked as librarians. VPS also bolstered professional development, with Layne Curtis, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction, and its former chief information officer, Lisa Greseth, leading efforts to involve teacher-librarians in key projects.
In 2007, teacher-librarians were heavily involved in a district-wide conversion to textbook automation and tracking. In 2008, teacher-librarians led the building- and classroom-level implementation of an educational video-on-demand service.
As these efforts began to prove effective, teacher-librarians increasingly assumed strategic leadership roles in their own buildings and on local and state committees. This tact aligns with Superintendent Webb’s push to widen his circle of instructional leaders and foster ubiquitous leadership throughout the district.
Ray is a primary example of this, as a former teacher-librarian now working as a leader in the central office. The 2012 Washington State Teacher of the Year – the first librarian to win the award – Ray is a leading voice on how librarians can reinvent their roles.
In his view, the profession has changed significantly from when he began as a school librarian. In the past, many educators “ran to the library to get away from the classroom, to get away from kids, to get away from grading, to have order, to control their own domain, to have something that’s relatively immutable,” Ray said. “That’s what the library of 25 years ago was. None of those things hold true anymore. You have to be open-minded, outgoing, flexible, be a change agent, and cultivate relationships with other people.”
“It would be a horribly boring position if I sat in here all day and just checked books in and out. You aren’t just the keeper of books now. You’re the keeper of information.”
Traci Chun, Teacher-Librarian, Skyview High School
What’s in a name?
The term ‘teacher-librarian‘ is widely used in Washington state in lieu of school librarian or library media specialist. This title is part of Washington state statute and acknowledges the core teaching role of librarians in addition to library management.
Ray understands the value that teacher librarians can bring to the table. “By virtue of their training, relationships, systems knowledge and instructional roles … teacher librarians are ideally suited to lead, teach, and support students and teachers in 21st-century schools,” he says.
As such, VPS teacher-librarians are designated trainers for a new online teacher evaluation system in Washington state and are adapting that evaluation and instructional framework to their new and emerging role in the classroom.
Ron Wagner, the teacher-librarian at Felida Elementary School, is one of 15 teacher-librarians tapped by the Washington Library Media Association to help schools adapt to the Common Core State Standards. He leads day-long workshops to train other teacher-librarians as leaders for adopting the standards within their buildings and districts.
It is a natural fit for teacher-librarians, Wagner says. The workshops focus on how to teach students to understand complex texts, read for information, and conduct research.
“We said, ‘Wow! This is stuff we already do,’” Wagner says. “Now we can make ourselves more relevant in our buildings by getting out and saying, ‘Hey, you guys seem overwhelmed by this new thing. We can help.’”
“We know that if you put these kind of digital tools into classrooms and do not support them in the right way, it won’t result in improved student learning outcomes. Just deploying a whole bunch of hardware and software into schools isn’t going to translate into performance.”
Steve Webb, Superintendent, Vancouver Public Schools
Many teacher-librarians say they now feel connected to something bigger than their own school, namely the strategic plan to redesign instruction across the district.
“If decisions are being made, we’re involved,” said Angela Vahsholtz–Andersen, teacher-librarian at Discovery Middle School and a former English teacher.
For instance Traci Chun, teacher-librarian at Skyview High School, is on a panel that designed the district’s new social studies curriculum. Chun is an example of how the gap between librarian and classroom instructor is closing. She spends about half of her time in the classroom, co-teaching with other faculty, leading in-class lessons, and teaching research skills to students in social studies, language arts, and chemistry.
“It’s important for students to see me outside the library so they understand, ‘Oh, she’s a teacher just like my classroom teacher,’” Chun says.
Her interaction with teachers is also changing. In the past, the conversation began with “I need resources. Give me a cart of books.” Now it is ‘Will you come in and teach with me?”
Some of the mainstays of the job remain. Librarians still introduce students to literature, manage book circulation, and in many cases manage a computer lab. But that is becomingly an increasingly smaller part of the job, Chun says.
“It would be a horribly boring position if I sat in here all day and just checked books in and out,” Chun says. “You aren’t just the keeper of books now. You’re the keeper of information.”
VPS has always been open to innovation and eager to harness technology to improve instruction. A member of the National School Board Association’s Technology Leadership Network for more than two decades, by the mid-1990s VPS boasted one computer for every four students, nearly five times the U.S. average. In 2008, the district began a five-year strategic plan called “Design II.” One of the goal areas for the plan is the creation of 21st-century flexible learning environments, a prelude to weLearn in expanding digital access to students.
The district also boasts nationally recognized magnet schools. At Vancouver Schools of Arts and Academics, students access industry-standard stage production equipment, a recording studio, and film production suites. Skyview School offers an engineering academy within a comprehensive high school. In recent years, the district opened iTech Preparatory and Lewis and Clark High School, which both reimagine traditional ideas of school time and space through competency-based 1:1 learning environments and teacher mentoring. The nature of these programs requires support for teachers and students that create unique roles for librarians.
“It’s much more of an active role. No longer do they wait for a question. They anticipate the needs. Their place is with the learners in the moment of learning, be that adults or students.”
Christina Iremonger, Principal, iTech Preparatory
“We know that if you put these kind of digital tools into classrooms and do not support them in the right way, it won’t translate into student learning outcomes,” Webb says. “Just deploying a whole bunch of hardware and software into schools isn’t going to translate into performance.”
To that end, VPS is taking a deliberate approach to weLearn. Device rollout for the district’s 23,000 students is staged over six years.
By design, teacher-librarians are playing an important role in implementation. And while they have received technology training for the last five years, the iPads posed new challenges for them.
Some were early adopters who owned smartphones for years and purchased their own iPads right after they came out in 2010. For others, the iPad was a new experience. Machelle Whitney and Peggy Hanes, the teacher-librarians at McLoughlin and Alki Middle Schools, respectively, fell into the latter category.
Whitney and Hanes’ schools are among the first to go 1:1 and thus were “first to get hit by the tsunami,” Ray says. “They are dealing with it in very different ways, but responding to it very well.”
Whitney, who did not own a smartphone, called herself “very much a card catalog-, print book-” librarian. “I first touched an iPad in July when I went to training. I had to take deep breaths and I still do.” Before the 2013-14 school year, she sought training on her own and participated in a summer iPad institute for teachers at her school. That “relieved my own worst case fears,” said the former science teacher. Because of her preparation and because of her trial by fire, she now regularly troubleshoots iPad problems for students and classroom teachers alike.
Hanes, a librarian for more than two decades, plays a different support role in her school. “Our staff is young and very tech-savvy. They don’t tend to come to me very much,” she says. Requests for book carts have also dropped off to “basically zero.” Instead she’s found her niche in supporting students in their digital learning.
Hanes is thrilled when she looks out at students’ busily working on their iPads instead of the library’s bank of old desktops. “The amount of engagement is off the charts. Kids are teaching each other,” she said. Before they’d sit in the computer lab “and there they’d stay. With the iPad, they’re mobile.”
Teacher-librarians now receive annual training in instructional technology leadership and going forward are considered key points of contact for schools introducing new technology. It is the latest evolution in VPS teacher-librarians reinventing their role several years removed from avoiding having their positions cut.
Even before the new iPads and laptops arrived, teacher-librarians were the ones principals counted on to spearhead efforts to teach students digital citizenship. Now, with students’ doing more and more work online, in computer labs, at home, and in classrooms, the teacher-librarians’ role as digital mavens is even more important. They are no longer isolated behind the library walls.
While Vancouver’s teacher-librarians may represent a new breed, changes to the district’s library spaces are changing more slowly across its buildings.
Some libraries are enclosed. Others occupy open spaces in common learning areas. Print encyclopedias still occupy space on the shelves and computer labs have not yet given way to mobile technology. Early shifts in the library program and collections are underway.
Ironically, what Vancouver views as a potential prototype for its future school library opened in 1995. That year, the district opened Discovery Middle School to support project-based learning. The library was part of a large, well-lit, and flexible space called the “Toolbox” that houses computer and science labs and an adjacent pottery room.
With some modifications to account for mobile devices and more collaborative space, the library could resemble “maker spaces,” which foster hands-on, multi-modal learning and creation.
“Teachers love this space,” said Vahsholtz-Andersen, the teacher-librarian at Discovery.
Columbia River’s big media center is crammed with tables and bookcases but Shana Ferguson, the school’s new librarian, says a planned redesign will make it amenable to many uses that take advantage of the library’s role as a common meeting place.
“A lot of students do need this space,” Ferguson says. “We have the reliable internet access they need. We’re sort of a full service research hub/Kinko’s.” One thing on her must-have list: more electric outlets for students to plug in their laptops and devices.
At schools already embracing a mobile, tech-integrated learning environment, like iTech Preparatory Academy, libraries are difficult to recognize. The STEM academy features two sites — a standalone middle school and high school co-located at Washington State University-Vancouver.
In the middle school, the library consists of a table and several kiosks of books in a hallway. At the high school, teacher-librarian Katie Nedved works out of a corner of what is primarily the lunchroom. With this arrangement, students can access resources during leisure time (hence the proximity to the lunchroom) or, when the cafeteria is empty, there is ample space to work in small groups. With each student owning her own laptop, a full-scale library space isn’t needed. iTech offers just 800 print books, mostly print counterparts to digital content the district offers.
Nedved, a former math teacher, came to Vancouver in 2013 from a small, nearby district that was eliminating its three library positions. She splits her time between iTech Prep and Lewis and Clark, a 1:1 school with a flexible schedule and open floor plan. The library there consists mostly of a cluster of shelves to hold its book circulation of about 7,000.
“I feel like my focus is organizing the online digital tools, which are so much vaster,” she said. “Although I would love to have a full library, this actually works for the type of work I’m doing.”
For Nedved — who, for all intents and purposes, is a librarian without a library — it is natural to view her role non-traditionally: mentoring students one-on-one, teaching digital citizenship, and helping both teachers and students curate the vast array of digital resources available online.
“It’s much more of an active role,” says Christina Iremonger, the principal of iTech Preparatory. “No longer do they wait for a question. They anticipate the needs. Their place is with the learners in the moment of learning, be that adults or students.”
In the year iTech opened without a teacher-librarian, logs showed that students accessed the library’s digital resources and databases only 400 times. In Nedved’s first year, after showing students how much information was available to them, they logged on more than 7,200 times before springtime.
As the district moves forward, Ray says changes in teacher-librarians’ role are what will ultimately influence changes to the library space.
“What we need to do first is redefine what teacher-librarians are doing to support student learning,” said Ray.
With student research moving online and VPS progressing through its weLearn 1:1 initiative, school librarians have also emerged as key advocates for digital citizenship.
“We’re committed to teaching students about digital citizenship and being good consumers of digital content,” said Webb, the superintendent. “That doesn’t mean a 14-year-old won’t push boundaries, but we have systems and structures in place so when that does occur, we seize upon that as a teachable moment.”
Like many districts, Vancouver employs policies to meet district, state and federal guidelines, and uses filters that apply to school and home technology use. Currently students cannot access Facebook and YouTube on school devices, or play games and download music. (Restrictions like these are common on most school computers. A 2012 survey by the American Association of School Libraries found that 88 percent use filters to block social media sites, 74 percent prevent instant messaging and online chats, and 66 percent cut off access to YouTube.)
Filters and policies only go so far, however, so to prepare students for college, career and life beyond high school, digital citizenship is an explicit component of VPS’ flexible learning environments. Teacher-librarians completed a gap analysis to identify resources, develop a scope and sequence, and recommend policies and principles to the district. In addition to a focus on cyberbullying, students learn about online safety, digital identity and data security.
In collaboration with teachers, librarians create digital citizenship lessons and adapt curriculum developed by Common Sense Media, a non-profit organization that helps children and families consume and create technology responsibly.
Vahsholtz-Andersen at Discovery helped lead the districts’ work on digital citizenship, shaping plans so teachers, students, and their families can “start figuring out what they need to know to use the power that’s being placed in students’ hands.”
When Ferguson teaches research skills to students at Columbia River, for example, she exhorts them to “break the Google habit” and dig deeper into databases such as Questia for more sophisticated and better answers.
“We’re fighting that,” Ferguson says. “Students want immediate information. They feel like Google has it when that isn’t necessarily the case.”
In his blog called the Librarian-Provocateur and in columns in School Library Journal and Teacher Librarian, Mark Ray advocates for librarians to recognize the need to remake their jobs, programs, and spaces for the 21st century.
Ray said it has taken nearly a decade for teacher-librarians to get to where they are in Vancouver. It has been a long process of “changing hearts and minds,” he said. “My strategy has been advocacy based on results rather than on some platonic form of what the library should be,” he said. “It’s not waving a flag for school libraries. It’s about how they support student learning.”
Vancouver is not alone in recognizing the critical role of teacher-librarians. Both at the state and national level, districts are increasingly promoting and investing in school libraries. Thanks in part to increased funding in Washington state, Bellevue School District, which cut high school librarians several years ago, has rewritten the job description to better align to district needs and is hiring more teacher-librarians. For the last several sessions of the Washington Legislature, teacher-librarians have crafted legislation to link school libraries to reform efforts.
At the national level, Follett’s Project Connect has brought together both educational and library leaders to articulate the ways in which school libraries support 21st century schools. As part of this team, Ray has presented to both administrative and library audiences, sitting alongside like-minded superintendents, librarians, and other educational leaders.
While there is ample anecdotal evidence that teacher-librarians are positively impacting what happens in schools and the district, translating that into empirical and systemic success requires a new way of measuring their work. In the past year, VPS has worked to apply the district’s instructional framework to librarians. Next year, a new evaluation system will be put in place.
Overall, Vancouver is like other districts in that it sees technology as an opportunity to empower learning for all students and overcome some chronic barriers to success. Given the infancy of Vancouver’s instructional and technology initiatives, it is too early to say whether the iPads and laptops are meeting these goals, or what the results will look like when both students and teachers have years of experience with them in the classroom.
Webb thinks it will take three or four years for technology to transform the classroom, but he sees early indicators that things are moving in the right direction. Student engagement is up, absenteeism and disciplinary problems are down. In a city with wealth and poverty, Webb believes these digital learning tools “have the potential to be the great equalizer in public education.”
Vancouver Public Schools is counting on teacher-librarians to help make that happen.
Courtesy of Vancouver Public Schools
Courtesy of Vancouver Public Schools