Chicago's Lack Of School Libraries Sparks Dispute

Nearly one in four Chicago public elementary schools and more than fifty high schools don't have staffed, in-school libraries. Parents at one school were so incensed, they occupied a school building for more than a month to pressure city officials to add one. School officials say they value libraries, but in an era of tight budgets, they often lose out to other priorities.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's go next to Chicago, where parents are protesting over school libraries, or the lack of them. Nearly a quarter of the city's elementary schools and several high schools do not have full library facilities. Parents say this is holding the kids back. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports on what they're doing about it.

CHERYL CORLEY: A group of parents and activists are meeting at La Casita. The ramshackle field house on the grounds of Whittier Elementary School was their home for 43 days.

Ms. EVELIN SANTOS (Protest Organizer): This is our library in La Casita.

CORLEY: Evelin Santos, a college student and one of the protest organizers, walks to the backroom. It's full of books; some catalogued neatly on shelves, others in milk cartons, some still packed in boxes. On the wall, a child's drawing of two dogs with the message: Welcome to the Library, in Spanish.

Ms. SANTOS: I believe we have more than 4,000 books in here.

CORLEY: Santos says the group started collecting books at the beginning of their protest, with donations pouring in from all over the state. Librarians came by too, donating their time to help put the books in order.

Ms. SANTOS: The students here need a library in order for them to get the proper skills to prosper in high school and in college.

CORLEY: The field house library is off limits to students now, until parents and the school board resolve their battle over its use. Inside the school building, classrooms have book collections, but parent Michelle Palencia - who has a six-year-old son at the school - says that's inadequate.

Ms. MICHELLE PALENCIA: They don't have the accessibility that you need to get everything they need done, like reports and projects, and just get basic information.

CORLEY: Carolina Gaete says without a library and trained librarians, the students at Whittier are at a disadvantage, as they try to meet academic standards.

Ms. CAROLINA GAETE: We are being evaluated with schools that have more resources; that have the tools necessary to excel. You want us to compete. You want us to be in the race with one leg.

CORLEY: There are 600-plus public schools in the Chicago district and about 160 don't have libraries. Julie Walker, with the American Association of School Librarians, says she understands parents concerns.

Ms. JULIE WALKER (Executive Director, American Association of School Librarians): We feel that students should be immersed in reading materials, you know, from the time they wake up in the morning until the time they go to bed at night.

CORLEY: Paul Whitsitt, who oversees the schools central library department, says he'd like to see all of the city's public schools with fully staffed libraries. But...

Mr. PAUL WHITSITT (Director, Libraries and Information Services): Nationwide there is a shortage of trained school librarians, and especially in urban and rural areas. So, sometimes that the issue. Sometimes it's just a budgetary issue.

CORLEY: And Like many school systems across the country, the Chicago Public Schools face a deep budget deficit. Principals and local school councils control most of the budget, and libraries often lose out in the competition for space as schools look to update resources. At Whittier, for example, there's a new computer lab, a new science lab, and an expanded lunchroom.

The school district says it could convert a classroom into a library, but parents say some grades are already sharing classrooms so the field house is a better option.

Spokeswoman Monique Bond says the district has funds to put libraries in schools that need rebuilding.

Ms. MONIQUE BOND (Communications Officer, Chicago Public Schools): But that is with a school that's overcrowded and desperately needs expansion.

CORLEY: And Whittier, says Bond, does not meet those criteria. So the negotiations continue. And while all involved say they now agree that a library is needed, the problem continues to be where.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: