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March 11, 2010

Information illiteracy: denying students an educational haven

by Jenny Sholar, Managing Features Editor
A school's library is its backbone. It strengthens and supports all departments and stimulates learning and independent thought. The library breathes life into the lessons from the classroom. We cannot afford to cut back library resources any more than we already have.

Over the past three years, Blair has lost one full-time and one part-time media assistant from the library, according to Blair media specialist Lisa Hack. The Fiscal Year 2011 MCPS budget, which is currently under consideration, includes potential cuts to 40 more media assistant positions county-wide. As the County Council deliberates next year's budget, it must remember that the media assistants who keep our libraries up and running are essential to providing students with a quality education.

Media assistants prepare books and other resources for use in classes, maintain the media center Web site and assist students. "They do a million things," said Hack. It's these little things that keep our library going, from clerical duties to one-on-one assistance for students. Cuts to library staff would prove detrimental to all the services the library provides, from evaluation of books to the number of classes the media center can accommodate.

The school library is where students learn to think critically and read intelligently. Libraries teach us to love and respect books and technology. A library's purpose is to teach information literacy - the abilities to sort through books and encyclopedias, to detangle the Web, to navigate the sea of sources to find and effectively use information relevant to the task at hand. The information literacy skills that students learn in the media center can help them organize and manage all parts of their lives. "The library is a place where students can go to individualize their own support for learning," said Gail Bailey, director of MCPS's School Library Media Programs.

The more students go to the library, the more they get these educational benefits. A 2003 North Carolina study by the American Library Association (ALA) found that scores on standardized tests in reading and English increased with the number of hours a library was staffed and open. But reducing the number of media center staff limits the library's hours. The potential cuts mean students will lose a significant amount of study time, considering that Blair's library has already started closing a half-hour earlier each day in light of past years' cuts. Students with eighth periods are left with only half an hour after school each day to work in the library before it shuts down at 3:30. And with students from the Blair community living in all corners of the county, meeting outside of school for group projects can be difficult; for some, the library is the only option. Limited library hours would make meeting nearly impossible.

A library is a quiet haven where students can do homework or access resources and online databases unavailable at home. Many students don't have convenient access to computers or the Internet, or even a quiet, supportive environment, outside of school. These students rely on the school libraries to complete their work. As teachers assign more computer-based homework, cutting back on student access to computers by limiting library time is counterintuitive.

The benefits of a school library go beyond homework. According to Bailey, a good library can raise a school's test scores by 10 to 20 percent. A Massachusetts study from 2000 connected increased student use of the library and the help a media assistant can provide with higher scores on statewide standardized tests.

As Blair teeters on the edge of meeting federal regulations posed by No Child Left Behind, we need measures that would improve our school's test scores, not lower them. Preserving the quality of school libraries could even provide a return on our investment, in the form of federal funding from the education reform plan Race to the Top as a reward for higher test scores.

In these times of economic distress, school officials are going to have to sacrifice something. But the quality of our media centers should be the last to go. We can't cut basic literacy skills, like those learned in the library, from the budget.

Yes, it's awful to cut art and music programs. But in a worst-case scenario, we can go to the library to learn about these subjects - unless it's closed.



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