The K-12 Library Connection: The School Librarian Solution to 2024 Education Challenges

A Response to "5 Challenges School District Leaders Will Face in 2024"

The School Librarian Solution

In her December 15, 2023 Education Week article “5 Challenges School District Leaders Will Face in 2024,” Evie Blad predicts school systems will need to solve for chronic absenteeism, expiring COVID-19 federal funds, declining enrollment, significant drops in academic performance, and divisive partisan politics. These challenges collectively have a significant negative impact on students’ academic learning and overall wellbeing. Here’s how a highly effective school librarian can help:

1. Chronic Absenteeism

Blad cites evidence that rates of chronically absent students have doubled in recent years, which especially harms students who experienced learning loss during the pandemic. In response, school districts are focusing on bolstering student engagement and improving outreach to families. A highly effective school librarian can lead these efforts. The library is ideally the heart and hub of the school, and the librarian can plan events and programs for the entire school community, connect students and families to community resources, and create a welcoming, inclusive library environment, collection and programming for all students. For example, in the school library students can create something new with makerspace tools and materials, record a podcast, find a book or audiobook that reflects their identity and lived experiences, study individually or with friends, receive librarian assistance with school assignments, and use the library digital resources for personal and academic learning. A highly effective school librarian can help re-engage chronically absent students. 

2. Expiring COVID-19 Relief Funds

September 30, 2024 is the deadline for school districts to commit their share of COVID-19 federal aid, followed by a four-month deadline to spend out all funds. Pandemic-era programs designed to address mental health challenges and prevent learning loss will be difficult to maintain without federal aid. While supporting students’ mental health and accelerating their academic growth requires a comprehensive approach beyond one program or solution, a highly effective school librarian supports students’ wellbeing, creates a safe space for vulnerable students, and collaborates with classroom teachers to plan instruction and curate resources to meet students’ unique needs.

3. Declining Enrollment

In addition to the COVID-19 funding cliff, declining enrollment will continue to impact district budgets. 2024 will be a year of difficult decisions for many district and school leaders and Blad warns that “leaders should guard against school closures and program cuts that disproportionately affect students of color and students from low-income households.” School librarians serve all students and provide equitable access to learning resources, and according to researchers in the 2022-23 project The School Library Investigation–Decline or Evolution? (SLIDE),”access to school librarians continues to be a major source of educational inequity.”

The  SLIDE qualitative study of interviews with K-12 administrators suggest that “support for school librarians is sometimes based on preconceived beliefs of new leaders about the value of school libraries and librarians” and administrators are influenced by previous experiences working with school librarians. It is therefore highly desirable that district decision makers understand how school librarianship has significantly evolved over the past decade. In 2024, highly effective school librarians lead information, media and digital literacy instruction, manage the school library print collection and digital resources, and promote a school culture of independent reading and lifelong learning. The documentary-style video What Is a Highly Effective Librarian? is a compilation of interviews of Colorado district leaders, school leaders, school librarians, classroom teachers and students that can serve as a tool for raising awareness of the role and impact of school librarians.

4. Accelerating Academic Growth

National Assessment of Educational Progress and Program for International Student Assessment test scores indicate U.S. students have lost academic ground. A highly effective school librarian supports classroom teachers to address learning loss.

Bridge the Gap: Supporting Postsecondary Academic Success Through Libraries, a November 2023 panel discussion of K-12 and academic librarians from Colorado colleges and universities, highlighted many examples of how school librarians play an important role in supporting our most vulnerable students. For example, panelist Heather Moon from Colorado State University emphasized the importance of a full-time certified librarian in every school as a key strategy for minimizing the achievement gap. “We need a teacher librarian in every single library– elementary, middle school, and high school,” Moon stated. “It’s the people in the library that is our greatest resource. It’s more than just a space, it’s more than just the collection– the librarians and the library are an integral part in the learning journey for all our students.”

Centaurus High School teacher librarian Shoshannah Turgel described how the classroom teacher/school librarian co-teaching model accelerates learning: it is easier to adapt the instructional pace, the school librarian can curate and integrated curriculum-aligned digital resources that provide accommodations such as language translation and narration, and the school librarian can help students with disabilities access adaptive technology and other resources to meet students’ unique needs.

To learn more about the Bridge the Gap panel discussion, request a recording of the webinar or view the talking points for K-12 administrators and/or classroom teachers

5. Divisive Partisan Politics

According to the RAND Corporation and the Center of Reinventing Public Education April 2023 survey, 88% of superintendent respondents said “the intrusion of political issues and opinions into schooling” was the most common response among a list of potential stressors. School library materials continue to be a focus of political debate. The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom documented a record number of book challenges in 2022 to 2,571 unique titles, affecting 220 school districts (including Colorado). Preliminary 2023 data indicates a continuing record-level number of schools experiencing challenges to school library materials. A highly effective school librarian is a trained professional in collection development; this training includes supporting schools and districts with developing selection policy, following policy to select new titles for the library collection, and supporting school and district staff with responding to book complaints and the reconsideration process. A school librarian is an invaluable staff member who can ensure adherence to district policy and students’ constitutional rights.

Looking Ahead to 2024 and Beyond

A highly effective school librarian is a valuable investment that supports the entire school community. As the only K-12 information specialists, school librarians will play an even more important role in leading media literacy instruction and digital citizenship, and providing guidance on integrating AI tools to enhance instruction. Federal legislation has been proposed to provide all K-12 students with access to a trained librarian, and school districts like Boston Public Schools have invested in initiatives to bring back librarians to schools that lost their school library programs to school closures and budget cuts.

Colorado school and district leaders seeking more information about the benefits of a school librarian, how to hire a trained school librarian, professional development resources for school librarians, or how to “grow your own” school librarian can contact Suzi Tonini, School Library Consultant for the Colorado State Library. 

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