Good school libraries boost readers

In between helping other students to their first classes at Orlando's Richmond Heights Elementary, fourth-grader Adrian Wilson tries to read a few pages of a library book about the Titanic.

"I like to read in the morning, at lunch, even when I'm on the safety patrol," said Adrian, who had the highest FCAT reading scores in his class last year.

This is the same child who barely made it through second grade and was retained in the third grade because of his poor reading and math skills.

"I didn't read much in the first grade. Books were harder then," he said. "Teachers told me reading can take me to a lot of places, and so I started reading."

New research to be presented to Florida educators later this month shows part of the reason Adrian and other students are reading better: the school library.

Donna Baumbach, a professor at the University of Central Florida, analyzed more than 1,700 media centers at Florida schools. She found that well-staffed, well-stocked libraries drive up elementary reading scores by 9 percent, middle-school scores by 3 percent and high-school scores by 22 percent.

Her yearlong study reflects the findings of similar research in six other states.

For Adrian and other elementary students, strong school libraries can be critical to academic success because educators agree it is important that children learn to read by age 9 -- the third grade -- so they can begin to read to learn subjects such as math, history and science.

Baumbach found a direct tie between the amount of time a library was professionally staffed and the number of students at a school who can read at grade level. She also found that reading scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test were higher at elementary schools where certified media specialists run the library, rather than teachers or clerks.

Media programs 'critical'"I hope this will reinforce the idea that media programs are critical to academic achievement and that a certified media specialist is important," said Baumbach, director of UCF's Instructional Technology Resource Center.

Last November the Orlando Sentinel reported that many Florida school media centers were full of antiquated books and run by untrained clerks. A year later, Orange County schools have more certified media specialists, along with donations of more than $800,000 to update collections at various libraries.

Statewide, however, Florida's library funding has held flat at $15 million for three years. And even though fast-growing Florida buys more books for media centers than the national average, schools have so many students that there are fewer books per pupil, Baumbach's research shows.

In order for Florida to invigorate its school libraries, the latest research suggests that the local school districts must have fresh library resources and media center professionals who know how to use them.

As Adrian sails through Harry Potter, Black Stallion and Goosebumps books, no one can say how much Richmond Heights' media center prompted the 10-year-old's newfound love of reading. School tutors helped him. His mother said she first noticed the difference when school was out for the summer.

"I really noticed the change when he started picking up and taking books with him instead of the GameBoy," Carole Wilson said.

Richmond Heights Principal June Jones said she has seen students' interest in reading ignite since media specialist Andrea Haynes became involved with the library, first as a volunteer coordinating a 24-hour read-a-thon last spring and now as the certified head librarian.

"It's the central location in our school," Jones said. "Our children love going there and getting extended learning time with someone outside of the classroom."

Orange County adds specialistsAbout a month after the Sentinel's report on school libraries, Orange County Superintendent Ron Blocker instructed principals to put certified teachers and media specialists over libraries that had been headed by clerks. Since then, four media specialists were added to 134 elementary and middle schools, bringing the total to 76. Fourteen were add at 14 high schools, for a total of 31.

Elsewhere in Central Florida, the number of professional media specialists declined in Seminole and Volusia counties and increased in Osceola, Polk, Brevard and Lake counties from 1997 to 2002, according to the state Department of Education. The state has no numbers for the current year.

The critical role media specialists play in pushing strong reading programs was reinforced in the new research. Libraries with certified media specialists had: more books per student, more subscriptions to newspapers and periodicals, more computers per student, more student visitation and greater circulation.

Improved reading was the payoff for having media specialists, the study shows. Test scores are more than 20 percent higher in schools with a full-time professional librarian and assistant than in schools with part-time media-center help.

In her report, Baumbach did not specify which districts had the best-run libraries. But she outlined some of the things certified media specialists do to help boost reading and test scores:

  • Apply for grants and use the proceeds to purchase more books. Rather than left sitting in the stacks, the books are rotated among classrooms.
  • Provide reading-incentive programs, writing assignments and multimedia instruction.
  • Work with teachers to assess their students' test scores and determine areas in which they need help.When children pick up a school library book in Orange County or anywhere else in Florida, the volume still may be as old as some parents.Throughout the state, school-library books still are an average of two decades old. One of every five media-center resources was published before 1980, according to the SUNLINK automated book catalog operated by Baumbach's library-services center.In Central Florida, Osceola's book collection was in the best shape, with 11 percent of its books published since 2000. Orange, Lake, Volusia and Polk counties all have more old books than the average Florida school district. Orange and Duval were the only urban districts that had more pre-1980 books than the state average. About one in every four or five library resources predated 1980 in those counties.Libraries feel budget constraintsMoney for new books is sporadic at best. Librarians report that about half of their budgets come not from the state but from book fairs, parent organizations, candy sales and profits from school supplies, according to the latest research.Library advocates say they were lucky to get even $15 million from the Legislature this year with the state facing a funding crisis over a voter-led mandate to reduce public-school class sizes.But with strained budgets, libraries have become more like conservatories for old books than research centers with current resources.Last year, the Sentinel found many old books on library shelves, including such titles as The Negro in America and Junior: A Colored Boy in Charleston. Other volumes prepared young women for jobs as flight attendants, rather than pilots, and predicted that people would someday land on the moon.Community groups responded by donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to school libraries. This month, Central Florida Educators Federal Credit Union will donate $500,000 to school media centers, with $10,000 going to 10 low-performing schools for each of the next five years. Joseph A. Melbourne Jr., president of Central Florida Educator's Federal Credit Union, said the Sentinel stories spurred the donation by shedding light on a great need at local schools."Schools need books," Melbourne said. "If kids can't take them home, it really hinders their learning."Donations help schools get booksAdditionally, home builders and Harcourt Trade Publishers have worked with the Orange County Public School Foundation to get $300,000 worth of books into elementary schools. Media centers at the district's 108 primary schools received 115 books as a result of that donation a few weeks ago.At Richmond Heights, Adrian has benefited, too. Charities, churches and the school district have put more than $25,000 into the media center that the young reading enthusiast patronizes. Most of it went to new books.Donations may have helped, but they have not transformed book stacks. Shelves at Orlando's Rock Lake Elementary, for instance, remain spare. A new library chief weeded out hundreds of antiquated volumes after some of the books were held up as examples of outdated materials by the Sentinel."No, we did not have the money to replace them. I think we need more books for the children. I need a little bit of everything," Rock Lake librarian Lydia Richard said."Our whole emphasis is getting kids to be better readers. That's our goal, to get them to read on grade level and that we keep reading till we're there. And that's what the library is here for."Mary Shanklin can be reached at 407-420-5538 or mshanklin@orlandosentinel.com.
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