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Sometimes it's worth just letting numbers tell a story. Two years ago, Chicago public schools had a budget for 454 librarians. Last year, 313 librarians. This year, 254. Public school educators in Chicago are facing tough financial choices. And having a full-time librarian is becoming a luxury. WBEZ's Becky Vevea explains.
BECKY VEVEA, BYLINE: It's not that there's a shortage of librarians in Chicago. And it's not mass layoffs.
MEGAN CUSICK: The people are there. They're just not staffing the library. They're staffing another classroom.
VEVEA: Megan Cusick, a librarian at Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative School, says all across the district, certified librarians are being reassigned.
CUSICK: English classrooms, in world languages, in elementary schools, in, you know, teaching a particular grade level.
SCOTT WALTER: We got down to the point of saying, well, we have a classroom, and it doesn't have a teacher.
VEVEA: Scott Walter is a parent at Nettlehorst Elementary, a popular school in the upper-middle-class Lakeview neighborhood on the city's North Side. He says when the district stopped funding specific positions and let principals and school councils decide how to spend their money, the numbers just weren't adding up.
WALTER: Here's the position, and she can be in a library or we can have a teacher in front of 30 kids. And no matter how much you love libraries, and as much as I do, you can't have a classroom without a teacher in front of it.
VEVEA: Ultimately, Nettlehorst had to move their librarian, who's also a certified teacher, into a fourth-grade classroom. In the state of Illinois, all librarians must also have teaching certifications. And most have endorsements to teach specific grades and subjects. There's also no required amount of minutes for library instruction in the state of Illinois. So schools won't face any repercussions if they don't have a librarian or a school library. Scott Walter says Nettlehorst students are still able to check out books because the clerk and parent volunteers help staff it. Still, he says, it's a lose-lose.
WALTER: It feels - again as a parent, it feels that CPS has set us up into a situation where we have to decide which finger we don't want.
VEVEA: Chicago school officials wouldn't go on tape for this story. But in a fact sheet sent to WBEZ, they touted the district's expanded virtual libraries available to all students. A spokesperson wrote, quote, "we will not be satisfied until we have central and-or classroom-based libraries in every school." At a school board meeting this summer, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett addressed the issue and says the real problem is with hiring.
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BARBARA BYRD-BENNETT: It's not that we don't want to have librarians in libraries. Nobody can argue that point, but the pool is diminished.
VEVEA: Librarian Megan Cusick says if the hiring pool is empty, again that's because so many librarians are being reassigned. She says with so many being transferred to the classroom, something bigger is being lost. Librarians teach kids how to do research, how to find and evaluate information, which she says is even more important in the digital age.
CUSICK: Kids don't just know how to do that. It's not a skill that they develop just because they have an iPhone or because they have a computer at home, which many of our students don't have.
VEVEA: Cusick and her colleagues don't want to see librarians added at the expense of other positions, like art teachers and physical education teachers. But they also don't want to see school libraries just become places where books are stored and meetings are held. For NPR News, I'm Becky Vevea in Chicago.
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