Sarasota one of only a few school districts in the state without librarians

The media center at Venice High School. The Sarasota County School district dropped certified media specialists from elementary schools in 2009 and from middle and high schools in 2013. [Herald-Tribune staff photo / Mike Lang]

The media center at Venice High School. The Sarasota County School district dropped certified media specialists from elementary schools in 2009 and from middle and high schools in 2013. [Herald-Tribune staff photo / Mike Lang]

By Ryan McKinnon

Manatee County has increased investment in school libraries, but results are tough to track

In Manatee County’s Southeast High School library, media specialist Audrey Dombroski was being mobbed. She had recently finished weeding her collection, and a crowd of teenage bibliophiles was laying claim to old history and geography books, building small stacks that they carried triumphantly back to their English classes.

“It was like I gave them gold,” Dombroski said.

With master’s degrees in library and information science and in communications, a Florida teacher’s certification and hours of professional development, Dombroski has spent years preparing to do what she loves. She said her training equipped her to transform the library into the many forms her students, bosses and peers demand.

It’s a business where inventory must be managed and customers kept happy, a classroom where students learn research skills, a job training hub where students collaborate on projects, a refuge for students who want to escape the madness of the hallway or cafeteria.

“The media center (library) is sort of the cultural center of the school,” Dombroski said.

One thing it’s not, she said, is obsolete.

Yet if Dombroski moved south to work in the Sarasota County school district, all of her degrees and certifications would be meaningless. The libraries in one of the state’s most well-funded and highest scoring districts are staffed by paraprofessionals, who are only required to have a high school diploma and pass a “para pro assessment test.”

In Florida’s 67 school districts, the number of librarians has dropped 27 percent since 2005.

Liberty and Franklin school districts both went from 1 librarian in 2011 to 0 the next year, but only two larger districts — Pasco and Sarasota — have eliminated librarians entirely. Sarasota dropped certified media specialists from elementary schools in 2009 and from middle and high schools in 2013.

Media aides running Sarasota libraries start at $14.60 an hour, just above the hourly wage of a bus driver or air conditioner filter changer.

That is a problem for the growth of the libraries, said Keith Lance, a researcher who has examined the impact school libraries have on student success.

“You get what you pay for. If you staff your library with an aide, then you’ve got someone staffing your library, but don’t kid yourself that you’ve got a librarian,” Lance said. “That’s like confusing the people who stoke the furnace on the ship with its navigator.”

Removing librarians from schools rankles some researchers who say well-staffed libraries are vital to student success, especially for lower-income and minority students. Studies in close to 20 states have shown that high-quality library programs lead to higher test scores, said Deb Kachel, a Pennsylvania-based researcher who has compiled and analyzed dozens of studies on the impact of school library programs.

Sarasota maintained its A-rating for the 14th consecutive year in 2016-17, but one in three third-graders in the district are not reading at grade level.

While some traditionalists argue that a hub of literacy is vital not only to helping struggling readers but to shaping the culture of the school, Sarasota has taken a different approach.

The district’s decision to replace certified librarians with media aides meant the doors to the libraries would at least stay open and more funds were available to pay for things like the highly touted Reading Recovery Program, which is available in every elementary school.

Many of the administrative tasks have been centralized, and Rob Manoogian, the district’s manager of instructional materials and library services, offers his services to the aides running district libraries to help them develop the collection or expand services.

“If you asked everybody in this district you’d be hard pressed to find anybody who’d say this is the best scenario ever,” Manoogian said. “But we have made this system work, and we are always looking to make it better.”

Manoogian was one of the media specialists who lost his job when the district eliminated middle and high school librarians. He praised the media aides working in Sarasota, but he hopes the district will shift more resources to the school libraries in coming years.

“I am optimistic that at some point, maybe next year, we start to move back to making the library the hub of the school in one form or fashion,” Manoogian said.

A misunderstanding

Manatee has taken the opposite approach, with Superintendent Diana Greene beefing up Manatee’s libraries, renaming them “media centers,” staffing them with certified specialists earning teacher salaries and increasing their responsibilities in the schools.

“The visual of the librarian is, ‘Be quiet and just check out your book,’” Greene said. “If you think in that realm you are probably thinking, yeah a paraprofessional could do that. And I would agree.”

But, Greene said, in Manatee the media specialists are required to do far more.

“Our media specialist goes through extensive training,” Greene said. “You have to have a degree. They should be the leaders on their campus when it comes to the use of digital technology, how teachers can enhance their curriculum using digital content and materials in their classroom.”

Dombroski’s responsibilities go beyond managing 14,465 library books and 35,449 text books. She plans events, brings in speakers, collaborates with teachers and keeps the library doors open all day every day, except for her 30-minute lunch break.

The district recently redesigned the space, adding tables on wheels, smart TV’s and two new computer labs. The new circulation desk was designed by Miguel Nunoz, a senior at Southeast who used computer automated design to turn Dombroski’s vision into a reality.

“She wanted a curvy aesthetic,” Miguel said, as he flipped through pages of architectural designs for the new desk.

Miguel said libraries and media specialists are vital at schools like Southeast, where 71 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch last year. Miguel’s family immigrated to California from Mexico when he was a toddler. His parents were migrant workers, and they moved all over the country before settling in Bradenton.

“I’m part of the lower class, I guess, and for some people this is kind of the access to a world that wouldn’t really be possible to you,” he said.

Tracking progress

While library advocates are likely to cheer Manatee’s decision, it can be tough to track its benefits.

Manatee’s district grade rose from a C to a B this year, yet half of the county’s third-graders are not reading at grade level, according to state data.

Circulation in Manatee’s media centers dropped 26 percent since 2010, going from 986,192 books checked out annually to 725,862 last year. Greene said a lot of the focus in Manatee has been on expanding technological resources for students. In Sarasota, the decline in circulation has not been as steep, dropping 18 percent during the same time period, from 713,969 in 2010 to 585,186 last year.

But much of the value librarians bring can’t be quantified, Lance said.

Greene said the payoff for keeping certified librarians in Manatee’s schools will result in more educated citizens. Media specialists are experts in information literacy, Greene said, and they teach classes on it in Manatee. When students have the world of information at their fingertips, they need someone to help them know whom to trust.

“You have to be quite savvy to understand what is real information,” Greene said. “I value our paraprofessionals, but when you have to teach students these skills, that’s why we hire media specialists who are certified as teachers.”

Several experts said the greatest beneficiaries of librarians were the teachers.

“When teachers see what their librarian can do for them,” said Leslie Maniotes, an education researcher, “they just light up and say, ‘Gosh, I never knew I had someone in school that could do this for me.’”