The library of Johnson Middle School has books and tables on one side, and a computer lab on the other.
Walking into Christopher Stewart's classroom at Johnson Middle School feels less like stepping into a library, and more like entering a sunlit coffee shop. Windows out to a courtyard completely line the back wall, across from a wall of bookshelves. At his desk in the center of a room, Stewart plays upbeat music on his radio. An electric massage chair is nestled into the back corner.
"I find that really, with interior design, it does make students want to come in here," says the Johnson Middle School librarian. "It makes a big difference to them, to be able to come into a space when you know that it's yours, and it's taken care of. It makes you want to take care of it, it makes you want to go to it."
After a school year of disrupted learning, Zooming into classes from bedrooms or kitchen tables, Stewart wants to make the library a room not just for researching and wrapping up assignments, but a place where students can learn about themselves and each other. And, with a recently passed D.C. budget amendment supporting a full-time librarian in every D.C. public school, he hopes every DCPS student has this same opportunity.
"Librarians offer so much to the students, parents, community members," Stewart says. "We don't only offer a rigorous academic experience that is scaffolded, that meets the needs of each student, but we also offer warm and inviting spaces where children can learn about not only their narrative but the narrative of others — how to be empathetic, how to be loving, how to be caring."
Budgets don't always reflect the crucial role that librarians play in the curriculum and educational infrastructure of a school. In 2012, DCPS cut allocated funding for librarians at schools with fewer than 300 students — in total, 58 librarian positions were eliminated. In 2019, the school system changed its budget process, allowing principals to request to use funds intended for librarians in other ways.
In August, hearing concern from community members and school librarians themselves about a dearth of the positions across the city's school system, Ward 4 D.C. councilmember Janeese Lewis George introduced a budget amendment moving more than $3 million from the city's public school system enrollment reserve to put a full-time librarian in the 36 DCPS schools that did not have one. The amendment passed with a yes vote from all but one D.C. councilmember, Chairman Phil Mendelson — marking a celebration for the school system's librarians, for whom budget cuts have been the norm over the past decade.
"It really just comes down to all of the ways that librarians contribute to student learning," says Lewis George. "It felt really important to step in and make sure, especially as we are going to try to recover any achievement losses...we're gonna need librarians there."
According to data released by DCPS last fall, the number of young students meeting literacy benchmarks dropped significantly during the first months of the pandemic — and the achievement gap between the city's white students and students of color widened — as the city struggled to distribute necessary technology for virtual learning to families.
Seventeen of the schools that did not have a full-time librarian before Lewis George's amendment were in predominantly Black wards 7 and 8 — which Lewis George says is a result of difficult choices the schools had to make.
"The schools, some in Ward 7 and Ward 8, who are pressured to perform better on testing, will forgo a number of other supports that ultimately actually do improve their overall school performance, but they just have to make these tough decisions," Lewis George says. "It was an unfair position to put them in."
The amendment, celebrated as a victory by educators, only secures the librarian funding in the fiscal year 2022 budget, but doesn't guarantee the new positions long-term. Next year, she would like to see the money for a full-time librarian at every DCPS school built into the budget.
"I'm hoping this is the last time there has to be a last-minute budget amendment," Lewis George says. "There's something to be said for people being unsure if they're gonna have a job."
Stewart, formerly the librarian at Columbia Heights Education Campus, decided to move to Johnson Middle School in Anacostia for the 2021-2022 school year, before the amendment was passed. He says that funding school librarians isn't just necessary for the students' education, but for sustaining libraries as an institution and career path.
"When we place value on a profession, on a service-oriented profession, then we also place value on its longevity," Stewart says. "And my goal, my hope is that little boys and little girls will desire to be librarians, because they will see them. It's hard to become something that you don't see."
During the pandemic, while he still worked at the Columbia Heights Education Campus, Stewart sent students packages of books to help them stay occupied, and set up an outdoor classroom on campus for kids who needed to escape from behind their screens, he says. He bought his students gift cards so they could purchase a meal and eat lunch with him over Zoom — attempting to recreate the real life moments taken away by the pandemic.
It's this type of relationship between the student and the librarian — having a safe space at school for either getting homework done or getting nothing done at all and relaxing — that Stewart says every DCPS student should have.
"When we say that we're going to make sure that we have a librarian in every school, what we're really saying is that Brown vs. Board of Education matters," Stewart says, referencing the landmark Supreme Court ruling outlawing "separate but equal" racial segregation in schools. "We're saying that our students, their lives, mean something. Every student, regardless of station in life, regardless of experience, regardless of where they live, regardless of their race and ethnicity, regardless of how much money their mom or dad makes."
To put it mildly, Stewart went the extra mile in preparing his library at Johnson Middle School for the return of students this year, aware that some may struggle to adjust back to the rigid schedule of the day after a remote-learning schedule, and others may need an escape during the day. The "peace and love" corner has a small massage chair, a basket of fruit, and spare pants and shirts for students who might need them. On the patio attached to his classroom, he has four long picnic tables placed in a circle, where he and his students can sit and eat lunch. On the Friday afternoon that DCist/WAMU visited his library, he and his students had ordered Chick-Fil-A.
"You're coming to a school or library, and you're thinking to yourself, 'oh I have a nice place that's mine'," Stewart says. "Many of these students have beautiful living rooms and houses, I'm sure, but some may not. And so how do they feel when they don't have that anywhere they look? No, we need to have a beautiful space."
Christopher Stewart started as the full-time librarian at Johnson Middle School in Ward 8 this year.
For current Columbia Heights Education Campus senior Emani James, staying connected with her librarian — Mr. Stewart — during the pandemic didn't just influence her schoolwork, but helped her cope with the pandemic. James' father passed away during the last school year, her junior year, and she recalled receiving check-ins on Microsoft Teams from Stewart, and even receiving free books from him in the mail to distract herself.
"Even if I didn't respond sometimes, after just having a rough day, he would continue to reach out and just make sure that I was good. Even if you don't want to talk...it's always good having someone who still checks up on you," James says.
Academically, she says, librarians are a resource outside of the traditional classroom where students can ask for help from an educator that isn't tasked with grading them, and learn at their own pace.
"Teachers give us books, and it may not be on the level we are on. It's the level they're trying to get us to reach," James says. "At the library, you can pick out your own books, it's like I'm not feeling pressure to pick this. I can read this book, and I can feel comfortable, and then I can go on to another book without having a whole class hearing me read a story that I can't read yet."
Now in her final year of high school, James says she plans on going to college to become a pediatric nurse.
To K.C. Boyd, a librarian at Jefferson Middle School Academy in Southwest D.C., the hands-on, face-to-face interactions with students were what she missed most during the pandemic. At the start of this school year, she looked forward to watching smiles creep up over masks as a student landed on a book that caught their eye. She even missed watching kids bicker over a last copy.
Like Stewart, she focused on making sure kids kept reading throughout the pandemic — in addition to helping them, their parents, and even their teachers wrangle the online learning system.
"Most people think that because you're not in a brick and mortar, that librarians are not needed, and that wasn't the case," Boyd says. "I supported all of [the technology assistance] initiatives, but my main goal was to keep the kids reading during the pandemic because it was a way of escape, escapism."
She praises the budget that places a full-time librarian in every school, but says that framing the function of librarians in post-pandemic education around the need to makeup for "lost time" during remote learning erases the hard work of educators like Stewart and herself, who took the extra steps to reach out to students and families over the past 17 months.
"I've heard that narrative before, and it's kind of not paying homage to the hard work that we did, as educators, as librarians during that time," Boyd says. "Librarians are jacks of all trades. We support all of the curriculum, every class that's taught in the building. I have to have a little knowledge of everything — I could be supporting literacy, another day I could be supporting technology integration research or digital citizenship."
Beyonnie Whitaker, a former student at Columbia Heights Education Campus, utilized that "jack of all trades" resource during her high school career — it was Mr. Stewart. Now a communications student at Bridgewater State University, she recalls field trips with Stewart, his after-school sessions assisting students through the college application process, and days of service, handing out books and food to children experiencing homelessness.
"When we think of libraries it's not just checking out a book," Whitaker says. "Books don't just grow you in intelligence, they grow you as a person. [All schools] should have that because for me, the books were my outlet...I always see the library as my shelter, the place where I feel comfortable and confident. The library can change individuals, as it changed me as a person."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.