SF public school libraries don’t go by the book

If you asked San Francisco teacher-librarian Lisa Bishop, she could write a book on the importance of public schools staffing full-time librarians.

Though considered by many to be a staple in a child's education, full-time librarians are being hired by fewer and fewer public schools in California each year for at least the past decade.

In fact, California has the worst ratio of teacher-librarians to students in the U.S., including Puerto Rico, said Rachelle Resnick, the San Francisco Unified School District's program administrator for library services.

But San Francisco is the rare exception. The City not only increased its teacher-librarians over the past decade, but it's about to employ a record-high number of such librarians in the coming school year.

This year, the district will have 71 full-time librarians, up from 67 in 2013-14. That puts the ratio roughly at one teacher-librarian per 750 students, while the statewide average in 2011-12 — the most recent year for which data were available — was 1-to-7,374 for the 36 percent of schools that completed an online survey.

“Nationally, they say you're supposed to have one librarian for every 750 students,” Resnick said. “We're the only [large] school district in California that comes close to that.”

San Francisco is also one of the few, if not the only, large urban districts in the state that have elementary school librarians, according to Resnick.

The secret to San Francisco's success is the Public Education Enrichment Fund, a product of the ballot initiative Proposition H that was approved by city voters in 2004. PEEF, a 10-year initiative that's due to expire this year, ensures a certain amount of city money is set aside annually for designated educational needs.

In 2012-13, PEEF's budget allocated $5.8 million that accounted for nearly all library services in the SFUSD. A teacher-librarian's salary in San Francisco ranges from about $50,000 to $80,000 per year.

“Without PEEF, we'd probably have six librarians districtwide for 100-plus schools,” said Kathy Fleming, the district's supervisor of PEEF.

City leaders are planning to put a measure on the November ballot to continue such funding, though it's undecided if it will be combined with other efforts to provide money for children's resources in The City.

In 2004-05, the year before PEEF was implemented, only 18 percent of SFUSD schools had credentialed librarians, according to Fleming.

“Oftentimes, libraries became storage closets,” Fleming said. “Kids didn't have a place to check out books.”

In 2005, the first six teacher-librarians were hired with PEEF money to work in 35 elementary schools, Resnick said. That number has steadily increased every year to include all elementary, middle and high schools.

The difference is evident. More than a million books were checked out of school libraries last year, twice as many since PEEF funding began, Fleming said.

Teacher-librarians are also credited with holding pajama parties, writing contests, cybersafety lessons and — most notably — encouraging students to read, according to Bishop.

“My job is to stimulate the students into wanting to read all the different types of genres in the library,” Bishop said.

Contrary to what some may think, school librarians don't just “sit behind a desk and talk to kids,” Bishop said.

Librarians are responsible for being an all-encompassing resource for students, teachers and families, she said.

“We're not just dealing with books, we're dealing with all things literary,” Bishop said. “We deal with all the subjects — everything that has to do with reading and writing and exploring the world of knowledge.”

Despite having 804 teacher-librarians throughout the state in 2012-13 — an all-time low since 2000 — California Department of Education spokeswoman Tina Jung said that as the economy improves school districts are receiving more money for programs such as libraries, particularly through Gov. Jerry Brown's Proposition 30 tax increase and California's Local Control Funding Formula enacted in 2013.

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