A few weeks ago, I had the honor and privilege of attending the School Library Journal Leadership Summit in Seattle, WA. It was an amazing weekend filled with sightseeing, learning and good times with friends old and new. I’m going to break up the experience with several posts, starting with today’s.
School Tours in Seattle, WA
While the conference itself took place on Saturday and Sunday, there was an optional pre-conference tour of schools on Friday. Led by local teacher librarian Craig Seasholes, the tour took us through four different school libraries in Seattle, giving a broad perspective on the state of libraries in the area. It was interesting and insightful to see such different spaces and hear the perspectives of the four librarians.
Beacon Hill International School
Our first stop on the school tours was Beacon Hill International School. This was a unique and interesting school to visit. Situated in the middle of an open plan school, there are few barriers between the classrooms and the library. It still manages to feel cozy and homey, and it’s nice to hear the buzz of classes going on in English, Spanish and Mandarin. Beacon Hill is part of a language immersion program in Seattle – a portion of classes everyday in the child’s home language (Spanish and Mandarin in this case) and the remainder in English. The student population is high-need, with over 70% of the students being on free or reduced lunch. All of these factors create very unique collection development demands. Sadly, the school has absolutely no book budget. The librarian, Mary Thompson, has had to get creative, seeking funding through grants and DonorsChoose. About 20% of her collection is in Mandarin or Spanish, and she also has a great deal of multicultural books in English as well. Mary works on a fixed schedule with no support staff, but students also come and go throughout the day due to the open floor plan. Parents are allowed to come to the library to check out books during and after school as well. Mary meets with instructional staff at every grade level toward the beginning of the year to plan out lessons and collaborate, and she incorporates research skills into every lesson, even with kindergarten.
Washington Middle School
Washington Middle School, the next of our school tours, has a bright, open library with large window displays looking into the interior hallways of the school. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see all of the library during the tour because half of it was taken up by picture day. The main focus of librarian Elaine Harger’s talk was on the 1:1 Kindle Fire HD rollout that happened during the previous school year. Amazon’s offices are based out of Seattle, and last year they donated these devices to Washington Middle School. The district had been considering BYOD, and Elaine had campaigned against it because of concerns that it would widen the digital divide that already exists between poorer and more well off students. The Kindle Fire experiment had hoped to solve this problem, but it did not work out as planned.
Washington Middle School serves multiple populations, including English Language Learners, Gifted students, a high achieving program and a general population. Their students come from a variety of economic backgrounds – many of their lower income students had never owned a personal electronic device. When the school went 1:1, students who were unfamiliar with such devices often became distracted by them, while students who had been exposed to personal devices thrived. In the end, the school decided to do away with the 1:1 initiative. This school year, the school is still 1:1 with their high achieving program, because they considered those students to be utilizing the devices effectively. Some class sets of devices were created for teachers to use, and the rest were made available for checkout. This means that many students get left out. There were boxes of devices being stored on library shelves while we were there – some broken, many just unused. It’s a pretty poignant example of how we cannot improve or “fix” education through technology alone – training and good pedagogy are also essential.
Garfield High School
We visit a high school next in our school tours. Garfield High School is a historic building with a newly renovated library. The school itself was built in 1922 and has several famous alumni, including Jimi Hendrix (who was expelled before he graduated), Quincy Jones and Macklemore. The current library was part of a beautiful renovation that transformed the original gymnasium. Elements of the original library were salvaged and incorporated to pay homage to the history, including the doorway to the glassed-in computer lab.
This lab is the highlight and focal point of the new library. The enclosed space houses a computer lab and teaching space, allowing classes to be conducted without disturbing other students in the library, and allowing visibility. The school will soon be getting a 3D printer, and it will be housed in this space as well. In the open areas, sound buffering on the walls keeps it from getting too noisy, and outlets are available for student devices. The library is dual platform, which was very important to the librarian, Janet Woodward. The lab has PCs and Macs are available in the general area.
Even with this beautiful renovation, not everything went perfectly. Janet communicated with the architect throughout the process, yet some things didn’t go as planned. The placement of some floor outlets made no sense (blocking paths). Several handcrafted chairs were purchased which, while aesthetically pleasing, are not very comfortable or easy to get out of the way for larger events. Also, with the computer lab in the middle of the library, the layout is awkward for full faculty meetings. Still, it’s a pretty amazing space.
Seattle Academy of the Arts and Sciences
The Seattle Academy of the Arts and Sciences is a gorgeous, modern, multi-building complex located right next to Seattle University. This is a private STREAM school, and in this case, the acronym stands for Science Technology Robotics Engineering Arts and Mathematics. They follow a learning commons model rather than a traditional library model, and the space is spread throughout six buildings. The Vanderbuilt library houses their main collection of 10,000 books, but there are also several smaller libraries located near the subjects being taught. Students taking art have the art library right there; students studying music have the music books on hand near their classrooms and practice spaces. Rather than having self-checkout or RFID, they check out books on the honor system and haven’t had much of an issue with items going missing. Being such a spread out learning commons, they also have a heavy eBook collection. This school has been 1:1 since 1997(!); back then students had to wire in their laptops since wireless wasn’t anywhere near as ubiquitous as it is today. Since every student has a device, they can utilize library resources no matter where they are. Kathleen Johnson is the main librarian for this space that serves 800 students grades 6-12. The space that we visited was large, open and flexible. There were comfortable couches, cafe tables, glass boards for brainstorming with dry erase markers, a classroom space and a glassed in study room. Students could be seen studying and collaborating throughout the space, which spanned two levels.
Reflecting on the school tours, one thing that struck me was the disparity of resources between the schools. Obviously, there is going to be a big different between private and public schools. But even among the three public schools, it was striking. Beacon Hill has to struggle and scramble to get resources. Meanwhile, Garfield High School has a gorgeous modern renovation (and a state of the art performing arts facility, thanks to Quincy Jones). Not that there’s anything wrong with well off alumni giving back to their schools, or major corporations donating 1:1 devices as in the case of Washington Middle School. It just felt very apparent to me that there was not an equity of resources or opportunities for all students. All of the librarians were passionate and clearly love what they do and are making the best of whatever situation they’re in. And from what I’ve heard, equity was a major issue in the recent Seattle Public School District strike that wrapped up just a few days before this tour. I hope to see funding for schools improve – when you see a language immersion school at 70% free/reduced lunch that has NO book budget, that’s disturbing to me.
Still, it was inspiring to meet these four librarians and learn from their experiences and their programs. We can get so isolated in our schools – it’s important for us to get out and visit other schools and districts to get a broader perspective on the state of education as a whole.
Have you gone on school tours outside of your district before? What stuck out to you?