My Turn, Jennifer Hubbard: Are schools giving up on literacy?

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 4, 2018

And so it was announced in an email from Superintendent Lynn Moody to Rowan County school employees that the school board has decided to “repurpose” our schools’ media coordinators, otherwise known as librarians, as if they are wooden pallets or used tires. This is dismaying enough, to know that a human being who has given a career to a school library, who has made it a home away from home for thousands of children and teachers, now finds his or her life’s work kicked to the curb.

What’s even more dismaying is what I find between the lines of this email: that those in charge of our schools have given up on the fight for literacy. It’s no secret that it’s an uphill battle, that funding is scarce. No doubt Moody and the school board often find themselves between rocks and hard places in trying to stretch a dollar. A decade ago, the solution was to eliminate classes in art, drama and music. Now the solution is to undercut literacy — the foundation for all other learning.

This is how it will go down: under the label “staff optimization,” media coordinators and literacy coaches will be “collapsed into one position” at four middle schools; at nine elementary schools, media coordinators and technology facilitators will do the collapsing; our four long-standing county high schools have the option of choosing between an assistant principal and the collapsed position of media coordinator/literacy coach. The money that once funded these jobs will go to augment “teacher supplements,” increase substitutes’ pay, and place resource officers in elementary schools.

In the front hall of the Wallace Educational Forum hangs a wide banner, first displayed at the 2017 Literacy Summit held by the Rowan-Salisbury School System. Literacy Matters, it says. Then why pull the rug out from under our most crucial support system — the school library? Do statistics not reveal that media coordinators affect more lives than security guards?

One teacher I know often says to her students, “In the age of information, ignorance is no excuse.”

It took me five minutes to do the homework the school board should have done. From the Rowan County Literacy Council’s website, there’s this: “Seventy-five percent of state prison inmates … can be classified as low literate.” And this: “Children of parents with low literacy skills have a 72 percent chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves.”

From the National Center for Education Statistics, I learned that in 2003 (the last time this study was conducted), an estimated 15 percent of Rowan County’s population of 99,665 lacked basic prose literacy skills. In other words, approximately 15,000 of our neighbors had difficulty processing the instructions on a new kitchen appliance, underlining the main point in a Salisbury Post article, and choosing the best health-care option for their families.

Research shows time and time again that the way out of poverty is education. If we think drugs and crime — poverty’s offspring —run rampant through Rowan County now, just wait ten or fifteen years when the effects of this decision completely upend neighborhoods, driving away those who can afford to move and leaving those who can’t at the mercy of a school board’s short-sightedness. Eliminating full-time librarians from schools is like regulating the sun to shine for only two hours a day. There won’t be enough light to go around. Like trees in a forest, only the tallest and well-rooted will survive.

I urge Superintendent Moody and the board to reconsider their decision and seek wiser solutions. It’s my educated guess that in the brand-new and costly central office, there is staff to be optimized, sent into battle for 10 or more hours a week to work one-on-one with those who read below grade level. This way, the media coordinators could keep on coordinating: supporting teachers and parents, bringing children and books together, opening doors to the light.

Jennifer Hubbard works at the Rowan Public Library and volunteers with the Rowan County Literacy Council and Communities in Schools. For six years, Betsy Detty, Overton School librarian, showed her the difference between education and enlightenment.