‘A school library is so important’: Community effort to reopen and staff more OUSD libraries
on December 17, 2021
Every day Samantha Solomon opens the Calvin Simmons Library to students at United Success Academy and Life Academy in Oakland. She greets each child by name as they file in during their lunch breaks to read, play games, do homework or converse with each other.
The library serves both schools, which share a building, and Solomon has been its teacher librarian since it reopened five years ago, after nine years of being closed.
“A special thing about libraries is that there is no barrier to entry,” Solomon said.
But not all of Oakland’s public schools have libraries.
The Oakland Unified School District does not list which schools have libraries. So Oakland North reached out to all 80 of the district’s K-12 schools, hearing back from all but one. Reporters found that 49 schools have libraries, 25 do not and five are in the process of reopening libraries. Many school libraries rely on volunteers. Only 30 are staffed, according to Jeanne Bruland, the district’s library liaison. Bruland said the district has only three teacher librarians, the industry’s ideal for library staffing, who serve five schools: Franklin Elementary, Skyline High School, Fremont High School and the two schools Solomon serves. That puts the ratio of OUSD teacher librarians to students at 1-to-11,666, well below the California average of 1-to-7,187.
The lack of library access for so many students concerns library advocates like former district library Manager Amy Cheney and other community members who believe all students should have a place where they can go and let their imaginations soar.
Cheney was the district library manager in 2015 and worked to reopen libraries like Calvin Simmons. Her job was to oversee all library functions in the district and ensure adequate library access for students. Cheney said she was laid off last year. The district has not yet filled the position, according to district spokesperson John Sasaki.
With that position vacant, and the lack of library access to many students, community organizations have stepped in to create a digital library, provide literacy support, and give books to Oakland students.
Since 2009, Friends of Oakland Public School Libraries, a nonprofit founded by former OUSD district library Manager Allen Gallagher, has been trying to revive OUSD school libraries. Throughout the years, FOPSL has raised over $250,000 to support the libraries and has worked to reopen 24 of them. It also has donated 2,500 books, and 25,000 hours of skilled library volunteers to help staff school libraries. During the pandemic, the group created Sora, a virtual library to assist students who were learning remotely.
“A school library is so important because it’s not only access to physical books, but it’s also the most judgment-free, unscripted space in a school,” said Dagmar Serota, FOPSL executive director.
In March, FOPSL launched Sora, an app that allows students to choose from a collection of audio and e-books built by teacher librarians. Sora is the first of its kind in OUSD. So far, students have checked out 54,000 books and spent a total of 15,000 hours reading on Sora.
“It’s not a replacement for a physical library,” Serota said. “It’s an enormous, enormous thing to have because there’s so many campuses without libraries.”
Organizations working closely with FOSPL believe that access to physical libraries, staffed professionals, and updated books can increase student reading skills.
OUSD’s most recent state test scores, from 2019, show two-thirds of the district’s 35,000 students performed below standards in English language arts. Some, like Cassie Perham, co-founder of the Oakland Literacy Coalition, believe access to libraries can boost literacy.
“For schools to have a library, it signals that books and reading and literacy are important to our school community and are something we value,” Perham said.
Founded in 2016, the coalition helps OUSD students access libraries and includes 29 organizations that provide literacy support to Oakland residents. In November, the coalition secured $25,000 for organizations providing literacy support to Oakland students and families. It also developed a partnership with Stephen and Ayesha Curry’s “Eat. Learn. Play. Bus” to deliver 500,000 pounds of fresh produce, 100,000 books, and 50,000 meals in the coming months.
In January, the coalition will absorb FOPSL. Serota said that won’t affect Sora, which will continue to serve OUSD students. Serota and Perham hope the merger will result in more library assistance to students.
“Our mission is working together to ensure that every Oakland student learns, or every Oakland child learns and loves to read,” Perham said.
That was also Solomon’s mission when she agreed to stop teaching after six years and take on the role of librarian at Calvin Simmons, a decision that required her to return to college for a master’s degree in library and information science.
In her new role, Solomon said, students are in the driving seat.
“Here, it’s so much more kid-driven,” she said. “They’re like, I’m curious about this, can you help me find it?”
The library has helped students like Edwin Aguilar, an eighth grader at United For Success Academy, who not only visits the library everyday to read his favorite books, but also works with Solomon to help other students check out books.
“It’s like a forest of books,” Edwin said of the library, “like an imaginary world where I can think, create, and sometimes get some ideas to do some art work.”
With the help of community organizations and support from the district, Solomon hopes to continue improving the library and making it useful for all students.
“This all represents a really significant capital investment,” Solomon said. “It’s worth it if you can consistently staff it.”
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