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Kids are not reading at grade level. Why don’t all Fort Worth schools invest in books?

·18 min read

De Zavala Elementary School librarian Teresa Guardiola is worried about children’s reading abilities, based on what she has seen in the first few weeks of school in Fort Worth.

Students are disengaged and lagging behind in basic reading skills, she said.

“Out of a dozen kids or so, maybe three were somewhat engaged in looking for sight words,” she said of one class. “The rest of them were totally oblivious, which tells me they’re not used to listening to stories, they haven’t been accustomed to looking at books.”

Last year only 26% of third-graders in the Fort Worth Independent School District were reading on grade level, according to the state standardized test, the latest in a downward trend of scores the district has faced in recent years.

This underscores the severity of learning loss over the course of the pandemic, adding to the urgency of improving reading scores that were already among the bottom of urban school districts in Texas. In response, Fort Worth ISD has invested heavily in reading interventions, assessments and programs in an effort to turn the trend around. The most recent effort is focused on training teachers in the science of reading, a state-mandated approach that also puts an emphasis on phonological awareness.

But school libraries, key to supporting literacy and allowing students to exercise skills as they develop, have quietly fallen out-of-date as campus administrators and committees tasked with deciding school budgets have increasingly left libraries with no funds to buy new books or replace old ones. The lack of funding is generally worse in low performing schools, which logic and studies show would benefit from more funds being spent on maintaining libraries.

Aging collections

Library funding, which is decided at the campus level, historically varies widely across the district with some campuses investing nothing in their libraries for years at a time, while others spend as much as $40 per student per year. As a result, the district has an aging library collection with books that average about 16 years old, and gaps in access to books from school to school.

The Texas State Library and Archives Commission recommends the copyright of books to be no older than 10 years, rating schools with the average copyright of books 14 years proficient, and older than 16 years needing improvement.

Some elementary schools in FWISD have collections averaging about 22 years old, according to an analysis of district data by the Star-Telegram, with one collection holding books that are only 4 years old after a fire destroyed the school’s books in 2020. But for most of the schools across the district, the majority of the books were published 16 years ago.

Keith Curry Lance, a leading researcher of school libraries, has found that access to high-quality libraries has been linked to greater academic achievement, leaving students at schools that don’t fund their libraries at a disadvantage.

“School libraries are very important in contributing to educational equity,” Lance said. “One of the things that studies have identified as a major predictor of kids’ reading scores is simply how much reading material they have access to.”

Lance said that access, whether it be at home or at school, can be a key factor in kids learning how to read.

“Some homes are very information rich, and others are very information poor,” he said. “And those kids in the latter kind of homes are at a great disadvantage. School libraries help to do at least something to try to level that playing field a bit.”

Marcey Sorensen, who was recently appointed to serve as the district’s chief academic officer, said this is why in her previous role as assistant superintendent of Teaching and Learning, the district invested $50,000 to fill classroom libraries in high-need schools. She hopes to do the same with school libraries in her new role.

“I think that any time that we can find space in a place, such as the libraries where students have access to rich and robust text, and fiction, nonfiction, media ... that we are doing a service to our students in terms of increasing their reading capacity.” she said. “We know that some communities have higher levels of access in the home than others ... so it’s our responsibility to make sure that kids have access to various forms of text.”

Impact on academic performance

In 2016, FWISD conducted an analysis of the library materials across the district.

Carter Cook, the district’s director of library media services, along with his colleagues in the library media services department, examined the quality of elementary school library collections, collection usage statistics, campus-based funding for school library collections and Accelerated Reader student participation data.

The purpose was to determine if there was a significant difference between the schools flagged by the state for chronically low academic achievement and the schools with high achievement despite a greater than 70% economically disadvantaged population.

“Our findings were that students at the higher performing schools checked out twice as many books as students at IR (Improvement Required) schools and the circulation of Spanish language books was 40% higher,” Cook said. “The higher performing schools allocated an average of $2.30 more per student for library books than the IR schools and had 15% more books in their library collections.”

Those findings are reflected in research by Stephen Krashen, a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, that found that school libraries staffed with certified librarians can counter the negative impact of poverty on academic outcomes.

“Poverty is always a factor in every one of these studies going back to the 1930s,” he said. “Poverty means, of course, poor diet, day-to-day getting through life, but it also means no books in the home. A good library can balance that access to books.”

Krashen also found that direct instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness, a focus of Fort Worth ISDs recent push for literacy “has little or no effect of reading comprehension.”

But librarians that spoke to the Star-Telegram shared that having qualified teachers who can lay the foundation for reading is just as important as having access to a wide variety of books.

Studies in 34 states, including Texas, have found connections between academic achievement and school libraries. Lance led many of those studies, finding that students tend to earn better standardized test scores in schools that have strong library programs.

The currency of library collection was also identified as a predictor of student achievement in eight state studies conducted between 2001 and 2010.

Despite this, the district has maintained a policy of site-based-management, allowing principals to decide whether to fund, or not fund libraries, regardless of academic achievement.

“Many librarians tell me that mentoring and tutoring expenses compete with the library budget at campuses,” Cook said. “The district pays mentors and tutors an hourly wage to work with students and this can be a big portion of a school’s budget.”

The result, Cook said, is that the district doesn’t have equitable collections across its 130 campuses.

The site based decision-making model traces back to 1992, when the Texas Education Agency mandated that district’s have a collaborative committee of school faculty and staff, parents, and community representatives to assess the educational outcomes and determine goals and strategies. Creating a budget is part of that process. After input from committee members, the principal has the final say in what goes into a budget.

That’s the reason funding for each library collection must contend with a slew of competing interests from different groups.

Until this year, not every school had a full-time librarian to advocate for funding, leaving other interests to push for those funds.

Marlette Martinez, the principal at De Zavala for the last three years, said the library often fell by the wayside in discussions about budgeting, in large part because of the lack of a full-time librarian to highlight the need.

“I’m grateful now that we have a full-time librarian at this campus,” Martinez said. “She was the one that made me aware about our library collection. I knew about it, but I didn’t know how bad it was, so having that conversation with her, keeping it in the forefront (is) keeping me accountable.”

Before last year, De Zavala did not allocate any funding for their library since the 2017-18 school year, and has not allocated the district recommended $8-per-student per-year since 2014.

Martinez said that salaries took up the largest part of the budget, including Title One funds that support schools across the district.

“Personnel takes up the most of it,” she said. “Whether it be a data analyst position we had at one point, or whether it be a Title One teacher.”

Funding for school libraries

The library at De Zavala Elementary, which is 63% Hispanic, only received funding once in the last three years, at a rate of $5.15-per-student, according to district records.

Starting as the first full-time librarian De Zavala Elementary has had in years, Guardiola looked on with big eyes as the assistant principal explained the age and condition of the library. She scanned the room, and saw yellowing shelves in a dimly lit library that held a collection of books ranging from 15 to 90 years old.

She would later run an analysis to present to her campus administration that showed 80% of the library was outdated, with only four books focusing on science and technology still relevant.

The funding is a far-cry from the $8-per-student recommended by district administration, and even further from the $20 recommended by the Texas Library and Archives Commission, which sets standards along with the Texas Education Agency.

De Zavala is not unique.

Spending on school libraries has been declining since 2014, when schools across the district spent $977,229.82 on books. In 2019, only $561,172.94 was spent, as 22 campuses chose to spend nothing on their collections.

Librarians across the district shared concerns about the age of books, and the struggle to convince campus leaders to prioritize the library.

More than half of the schools allocate at least $8 per student for their libraries, putting them a step ahead of libraries and schools that spend less, or nothing at all, potentially hindering administrators goals of increasing literacy scores

“What we find is about 60% of the schools give $8 or more, but then the other 40% give less than $8,” said Cook, the district’s director of library media services. “And some some years don’t get anything. So those collections are just kind of stagnant.”

While the pandemic had an outsized impact on the learning loss of students, Fort Worth ISD has lagged behind Texas’ other major urban districts in grade-level reading among third-graders for years. The district ranked second-to-last in 2018 and 2019, behind every other urban district but San Antonio. In 2017, it ranked behind all but the San Antonio and Dallas districts.

The challenges are not confined to elementary schools.

Matthew Booth, a librarian at Morningside Middle School, said he has received between $2 and $5 per student for the last three years, and has not been consulted on the needs of the library by his administration.

Booth, and other librarians that spoke to the Star-Telegram, described evolving roles as librarians took on more responsibilities concerning technology and technical support as the district transitioned to providing a device to every student from pre-K through 12th grade over the last year-and-a-half.

That is the case in libraries with adequate funding as well.

Hubbard Heights Elementary, which is also a Hispanic-majority school, spent just over $40-per-student last year, a budget the librarian Mindy Selby says is thanks to the generous support of the principal. But the school librarian still had to take time away from the library when she served as a substitute teacher for teachers amid the pandemic last year.

Even as one of the most well-funded schools in the district, Selby said she holds up to three book fairs a year to supplement the budget, while many schools rely on donations from Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs).

Alex Montalvo, who used to serve as the president of the Council of PTAs in Fort Worth ISD, currently has a daughter that attends Waverly Park Elementary school.

“There is a pretty strong PTA there so we do book fairs throughout the years traditionally,” he said. “The benefit of doing the book fairs and people buying books from the Scholastic book fairs that we have is that the library gets some credits to purchase some new books from the library.”

Schools also benefit from philanthropic efforts, like donations from Read Fort Worth and grants from organizations like the Gary Patterson Foundation, which provides the Launch Into Literacy program which provided funds to every FWISD elementary school library over a 2-year period.

Individual librarians can also apply for smaller grant opportunities like the Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries, which is providing funds to two schools in 2021. But those funding sources are not sustainable.

“These one-time ‘infusions of capital’ have improved our library collections, but they cannot maintain the collections over a period of years,” Cook said.

Just one library, such as De Zavala’s would cost as much as $30,000 to bring up to state standards, Guardiola said — more than the school has spent on library books in the last ten years combined.

“You can’t do that in one year,” she said. “Unless there is a millionaire who wants to help one tiny school - but the problem is ... there are many schools in the exact situation.”

Guardiola is organizing a book fair, and setting up donation websites in the hopes that community members and parents will help fill the library as she advocates for more funding.

Diversity in books

While having access to books is one hurdle, researchers and librarians alike say it is also important to fill libraries with books kids want to read. A large part of that, is having books that reflect what the school looks like.

“We have a certain population of Muslim students, a certain population of Black students, a certain population of other types of peoples, and all of those peoples, you know, their histories, their cultures, their languages, they should all be represented in some way in the library, “ Guardiola said.

De Zavala Elementary school, one of 14 dual-language programs in Fort Worth ISD, is 63% Hispanic, yet only 36% of the collection is categorized as diverse by a library management system called TitleWave.

Books in that category, according to a description provided by a librarian include books that discuss topics ranging from Women’s studies, to geographic focused books exploring regions from Canada to the Middle East. Other books in the category include Homelessness, Civil Rights and Folklore.

Liz Philippi, the School program coordinator for the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, said the cultural relevance of books has increased over the years.

“In the last 30 years, children’s literature and young adult literature have just revolutionized,” Philippi said. “Now we’re reading books about children of immigrants, children who grow up in all kinds of different environments, and that is something that is a huge loss if kids don’t have access to that.”

State standards, which recommend practices for school libraries, call for books to be weeded out regularly, in part to maintain the cultural relevance.

Daniella Smith, the Hazel Harvey Peace Endowed Professor at the University of North Texas, said updating collections is important for students to be properly informed, but also to keep students engaged with books.

“Our collections exemplify the norms that are present within society at a particular time,” she said. “They change over time, and some of the ideas that were appropriate in the past, as we study and we do research, or we’ve moved forward and start to understand that those ideas are problematic for us now. Therefore, it’s essential for us to be able to move forward with promoting collections that help our students progress and develop their self esteem.”

But weeding out books is not easy.

“Weeding books from the library collection is a challenge for librarians,” Cook said. “It is time consuming to evaluate each book to determine if it is still current and/or popular. Librarians wear many hats throughout the day and weeding books is rarely the top priority compared to working with students and supporting the campus.”

With quarantines and COVID cases spreading throughout schools over the last year, librarians like Selby were pulled away from duties to sub-in for classes. Others, like Guardiola, also act as P.E. instructors or double with other jobs.

Regardless, administrators don’t always understand why books are being thrown away.

“If a school doesn’t fund the library program well or often, it is hard for the librarian to justify disposing of older books if there isn’t funding available to replace them,” Cook said.

Finding new books is especially important for non-fiction books, as history and science are updated with new discoveries every year.

“With fiction a lot of times the covers will be outdated,” Selby said. “A lot of times the books will be fine but the cover is outdated and the kids won’t even touch the book, but the minute I get the updated cover they’re like ‘oh yeah!’ ”

A better option

Cook, the district’s director of Library Media Services, has been pushing for a more equitable system for years. In 2020, he got close.

“We had gotten to the point where I was communicating with the Budget Department about the amount per school,” he said. “But then our district had a malware attack followed by COVID-related school closings in March 2020 and we haven’t revisited the topic since.”

The confluence of events made the need for library funding even more urgent.

Librarians across the district lost records of who had what books, and students never returned from spring break when classes went virtual due to COVID-19.

“In the end, FWISD has 88,661 less library books than it did before the malware attack and COVID school closures in March 2020,” Cook said. “We’d love to get some of those books back into our libraries, but if they are currently in homes and being used by families, then that’s a good thing.”

Other districts, like Mesquite ISD, have adopted policies that distribute minimum funding to all campuses across their district.

“Librarians have autonomy to order what is needed for their campus, that is not controlled by the central office,” Mary Woodard, the director of Library Services for the district, said. “We give them the budget amount that they have to spend and then depending on what is needed they base purchases on that.”

In addition to ensuring that students at every school have access to similar funding, Carter said his proposal could actually save the district money.

“My proposal is based on a 10-year period in which the district expended more than $8.00 per student for library materials, but it wasn’t equitably distributed among the campuses,” he said. “The benefits of allocating a library budget to each campus based on a set amount of $8.00 per student would save the district some money and be equitably distributed to all schools.”

Sorensen told the Star-Telegram that she was not familiar with campuses leaving libraries with no funding for years at a time, since she has only been in her new role for a few weeks. But moving forward, she said, equity will be the goal.

“In my new role, I am committed to looking at the funding structure and ensuring that it is grounded in equity,” she said.

Unprecedented amounts of funding and attention have gone to schools over the last year as the pandemic has highlighted their importance.

The district is planning to use $2.6 million in Federal Coronavirus Relief funds to fund libraries across the district.

“That’s going to be a central office use of that funding so that we can ensure that spaces in places that have a stronger need, get what they need,” she said. “That won’t be doled out sight-based, that’ll be managed centrally.”

Sorensen said she has not spoken with librarians other than Carter yet in her new role, but moving forward, she said investing in libraries will be a top priority.

“We as the district are working hard on literacy,” she said. “Which is why (those funds) have been set aside for the use of putting additional funding to our libraries.”

Phillippi, who is the only official overseeing school libraries on the state-level, said libraries should be a part of the conversation as policy makers discuss equity for students across the state of Texas.

“There’s a lot of focus on connectivity and equity of access,” she said. “I just wish that more people knew that equity of access should also extend to the books we provide for our kids, not just their internet connection.”