Deep cuts: Westport school libraries' needs exceed staffing levels
In the library media center at Saugatuck Elementary School on Monday morning, a group of students were working on a project. They weren't looking for information to help on a book report, or tracking down sources to use in a class presentation.
That would be decidedly 20th century.
Instead, they were putting a variety of skills to use by producing a radio show -- or podcast. Gaps of silence had to be edited out, while soft-spoken voices had to be amplified in order to be better heard. Sound effects also needed to be placed in the recording.
Such projects, which decades ago would have been unheard of in a traditional school library, are the norm in the library media centers in the five elementary schools in Westport. As advanced as some of the students' projects are, some feel that budgetary cuts will have serious negative effects on the education children receive outside the classroom and in the library.
In the 2009-10 budget, which saw unprecedented cuts in the school district with just a .5 percent increase in spending, five full-time paraprofessionals were reduced to spending just half of their time in the library media centers.
"This is the first year that we've had half-time [paraprofessionals], so next year is when it will really start showing ... it's not instant," said Bill Derry, coordinator of information and technology literacy.
One of the unique features of the library media centers, according to Derry, is how the media specialist works with teachers to coordinate lessons that might not always focus on traditional library skills, but instead focus on problem solving and "higher-level thinking skills."
An example given was a tool used by students called Scratch, a computer program developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that allows students to program anything from music videos to games.
"When that happens, we are at our best and it does happen often enough," Derry said.
Looking to the future, Derry doesn't believe that the in-depth coordination and planning with the teachers will happen as much if the staffing continues to be constricted.
"We won't have as in-depth higher-level activities that focus on synthesis and creativity," he said.
In addition to the paraprofessionals and media specialists, parents also volunteer their time. The tasks vary, from shelving books to checking out items for children. Last year, volunteers were seen as a way to ease the pain of the paraprofessional reductions. Susanne Armstrong, a volunteer at Greens Farms Elementary School, doesn't think any volunteer could replace what a paraprofessional does, especially when it comes to disciplining an unruly child.
"[Volunteers] do an amazing job, but they're just in the background," Armstrong said at Monday's Board of Education meeting.
In kindergarten and first grade, students come to the library media center for half an hour each week. After first grade, the curriculum becomes more focused, partially due to the projects that are assigned to students. It's in the library media center where students get their first taste of research, a skill that students will put to use many times as they make their way through high school and beyond.
For Armstrong, the extra work library media specialists have to do is a cause for concern when it comes to teaching students about conducting research.
"This is their first [foray] into research and now that's gone," she said. "That's diluted, and when the kids go to Bedford Middle School they're not going to have that lifetime skill that they need."