by Bob Geary
About Deborah Westmoreland. She called me a couple of weeks ago to ask if I knew that the Wake school board was laying off 40 librarians — media specialists these days — as of the end of the 2009-10 school year. I did not know that. I remembered Deborah from her involvement in the first Sparkcon a few years ago. Since then, she'd taken a job with the Wake schools as media specialist at Moore Square Magnet Middle School. Now, she was one of those being laid off.
Her call prompted me to write a column in the Indy this week about two related subjects. One is the fact that, with all the attention being given to the new school board majority's anti-diversity policy, and its plan to carve the county into "assignment zones" that will inevitably, I think, result in high-poverty schools in Raleigh and East Wake, too little attention has been paid to the new majority's very inadequate budget.
The Republican Five — the members in the 5-4 board majority — are "starving the beast" with a budget which, on the surface, seems reasonable given parlous times, but which is in fact far short of what's needed to keep a good system going. State aid is tanking, and the Wake system continues to grow with four new schools opening this fall and a projected enrollment increase of 3,800 students. Yet the school board asked the county commissioners for the same amount of money for next year as it received this year. Obviously, something will have to give.
Part of what will give is class sizes, which will get bigger — how much bigger we won't know until the General Assembly finishes its budget .., and in turn the General Assembly is waiting for Congress to come through with almost $500 million more for Medicaid. If the Medicaid money doesn't materialize, deeper cuts to state school aid will follow.
Which brings me to the column's second subject: So far, the school board's biggest cuts have not been to classrooms in general, but rather have fallen on programs like Project Enlightenment and library professionals — programs that are of special importance to the kids and families who are struggling.
I wrote about Project Enlightenment earlier. Visiting with Deborah a week ago on her last day at work, I got an update on why the modern library, now a multimedia center, can and should be the heartbeat of a good school.
You can read the column here. Below the fold, I'll relate who Deborah Westmoreland is and what her responsibilities were as the media special in her middle school. See if you don't come to the same conclusion I did — that cutting school librarians is like fielding a football team without helmets. You can do it, but some of the players are gonna get hurt. Which ones? ...
... The ones whose moms and dads can't spring for a good helmet, or a library of books and magazines and lessons on video and software.
Deborah Westmoreland is a University of Michigan graduate who for nine years worked at NCSU as a research librarian. From there, she moved to Red Hat as an editor, then ran her own communications business for a couple of years helping corporate clients with branding. She's not really the corporate type, though — she said — and so in 2008 she jumped at the chance to work for the Wake schools as a librarian, coming to the system via "lateral entry." That means, she's a professional librarian, but she didn't have all the requisite coursework to be certified as a school librarian. Under lateral entry, she was hired but needed to complete eight education courses. With four down, four to go, the Wake school board dropped the axe on all of the uncertified librarians, about 40 in all. (When I called the school system to get an exact number, I was shuffled to the communications department, which hasn't called back yet. It seemed like there was some doubt about the exact number.)
The cutback is from a formula calling for a certain ratio of librarians to students to a flat one librarian per elementary and middle school, and two librarians per high school. Saves money, you see.
At Moore Square Magnet Middle, Westmoreland was the only librarian/media specialist anyway; and she'll be replaced, she said, by a librarian coming over from Daniels Middle School, which this year had three such positions. So Daniels gets hurt, but Moore Square may take a hit too, because it sure seems like Westmoreland was a great fit there.
How so? When I asked her to describe her job (that's what we journalists do — please sum up your life in a sentence or two, would you?) she paused, laughed, then talked about research and the fact that most kids don't have a good process for going about it. On the other hand, though, middle-school kids (grades 6-8) are fast learners. "They learn so quickly, I find them just amazing," she said. And she knows research, especially, she said, the importance of taking the time, once you've looked into a subject, to "incubate" it, and make a prototype — sounds like an outline, but not if it's a science project, eh? — before plunging in for the final product.
Years back, when I was in graduate school, I read papers for some college courses in political science. Imprinted on my brain is the memory of students — bright students — who'd never been taught how to collect, use and analyze information, so of course they were pretty bad at applying it.
This is what a modern library professional brings to a school, and by the way, not just for the kids but for the teachers. They aren't necessarily all that good at research methods either. Or, don't call it research methods. Call it thinking a problem through and figuring out how to address it.
What's the number one predictor of whether a student — a person — will succeed in life? I'd say it's the ability to weigh information and think ... before you do something that's irrevocably wrong.
Westmoreland has another set of skills that Moore Square drew on. From an early age, she told me, she was a techie because her father was — she streamed her first video over the Internet in 1995. Well, the modern school librarian isn't just books and journals any more, and the TV sets for showing educational videos are giving way to "Smart Boards" with connections for all manner of inputs. For example, you can teach with a Powerpoint and follow up with questions that every student answers on a pad — and you know immediately how many got it right and who.
So Westmoreland installed a Smart Board in the library — media center — and uses it to teach the teachers, who in turn are getting Smart Boards for their classrooms, as well as the students.
But, garbage in, garbage out. So it's the librarian's job to choose the best books, journals, software, CDs, and DVDs to have on hand to back up the teachers' lessons and engage the kids when they come in with a question or, as may be the case, a blank expression. This is a particularly challenging job at Moore Square, a magnet tied to the art, history, and natural sciences museums in downtown Raleigh and the cultural lessons they can impart. Westmoreland chose to be at Moore Square precisely because of its cultural bent and the fact that, in the center city, it's diverse in all the best senses of that word. Building her library's collections, she said, was her most challenging job — coming from corporate America to middle school — and one of her most rewarding.
At this stage, Westmoreland may sound like a real crackerjack whiz of a perhaps off-putting kind. I don't know her that well, but I think, in fact, that while she's a pretty serious gearhead, she has the personality of a poet. In fact, she is a poet, about to be published for the first time by a small press in Louisiana, and she describes her approach to kids as "buddhist." She takes them as they come, in other words, very calmly.
This, it seems to me, is why librarians matter so much, good ones anyway. Kids are judged constantly in school, and especially in middle school it's a jungle of hormones and homo sapiens guarding their turf. You gotta be tough, right? But we lose, from middle school on, more than 20 percent of our kids who drop out before finishing high school. For minority kids and the economically disadvantaged, the dropout rate is almost half.
To me, a good school is one with enough interesting, knowledgeable and caring people that one — somebody down at the library, say — can step in and be a friend and a counselor to the kids who aren't so tough ... or maybe they're a little too tough. A little buddhism can go a long way. And a little poetry.
Westmoreland and I talked about that too, the library as a "safe haven" for kids, a place where they can come, experiment, learn, fail, succeed and have a little fun. If they're not reading well, they can come and read, and Miss W. won't teach them so much as encourage them and help them keep a focus for 15 minutes — after which the reward might be a favorite video on the Smart Board. Or a chat about what the hell corporate branding is and why, if you're good at it, you can make a living doing it.
I'm not vouching for Deborah Westmoreland's skills, nor does she need me to. What am I saying is that, as she talked about her job and how she went about it, I could see so clearly how the more good librarians there are in a school, the better that school is going to be for the kids who aren't sailing through, who aren't the star athletes, but who can be — with a judicious application of extra attention — headed for great, sometimes unexpected success.
As I said in the column, this may not matter so much in a "rich" school where the PTA can supplement the budget, parents come in as volunteers in the library, and the kids own their own computers and software. An extra librarian there would be nice, but not critical.
But in a high-poverty school of the sort the Republican Five seem determined to create, extra professional hands will be required to have any chance of avoiding the sorry consequences many of us — I — otherwise anticipate. That's why I think the cuts the Five have made are so telling. They say they care about the kids who aren't making it. But talk is cheap — and so is their budget.
P.S. Westmoreland said she'll take advantage of her time off, as it were, to finish the remaining four courses for her school librarian's certificate. Meantime, she's a Pilates teacher on the side, and she writes poetry — she'll be fine, she said. Ironically, while Wake County is laying off librarians, Chatham County is hiring for three vacancies. Not that's she's necessarily going to apply there, but she's just sayin' ...