Not Public School As We Remember It

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It’s called “school reform” with a focus on “student achievement,” but I shudder to think where we have come as a nation that many public schools don’t have a library, and won’t ever get one unless someone can beg a grant from a foundation or corporation.

I saw this firsthand at the middle school/high school where I taught English in New York’s South Bronx. Touting itself as a model of school reform, this self-proclaimed “institute” was presented as a showcase of high standards and a passion for learning. Though set in the congressional district with the lowest per-capita income in the nation, the school was, the administration incessantly assured parents, the fast track to success.

“Academics,” “college-ready,” “student achievement” and other nebulous but upwardly mobile-sounding words were practically incantations led by the principal.

The problem was, all this school had for its 350 students was little more than classrooms on the third floor of a former elementary school, set between a hospital and a jail.

Dressed in uniforms resembling the old Catholic school outfit, the students looked the part of “scholars,” as the administration referred to them. But from what I could see, the kids really were just bit players in a tragedy called “They Stole The American Public School Experience From Us And Called It Reform.”

A public school is supposed to have a music program. We only had a boom-box and a bunch of drums and African gourds covered with beads that usually were locked in a closet.

A public school is supposed to have art. We had none.

A public school is supposed to have a library. We didn’t.

We did, however, have a librarian. A slight woman with a soft Caribbean accent, Ms. Page had been thrust upon our school when, after decades as the librarian in a large public high school, she was pushed out as the school closed to make way for several new, smaller, reform-oriented “academies,” “institutes” and “centers.”

As a librarian without a library, she prepared a library-oriented bulletin board and was used as an administration utility player, spending most of her day backing up the dean, assistant dean and school aide in monitoring the halls and making sure that the restrooms were locked during odd-numbered periods.

Sports? They were limited to baseball in a nearby park and basketball in the gym we shared with another school in the building. That is, until a teacher got a grant for an archery program. After much fanfare and teacher recommendations as to which students could be trusted with powerfully propelled sharp objects, a dozen ninth graders spread out in the cafeteria after school shooting at targets at the far end of the tables.

The power of grants became especially clear when the principal of the other small school in our building secured funding for a school library. A hard-charging young fellow who knew his way around charities and foundations, he told a reporter that he generated $500,000 a year from outside sources. He certainly outdid himself with his school’s library.

Set on the second floor behind glass windows, it was a brand-new, high-tech oasis financed by grants. It was gorgeous. Stack after stack of books, a line of brand-new computers. Carpet. Tables. Comfortable chairs.

I led my eighth graders through for a tour, and they were dumbstruck. Even the most outrageous of them walked gently and touched nothing, knowing that this was a very special place.

Indeed it was. A school without its own library is now quite common. A crowd-sourced Google Map, “A Nation without School Libraries,” is dense with place marks as it lists hundreds of schools—and school districts—without libraries or librarians.

Today, so much of what Americans have long taken for granted as the typical public-school experience is being eliminated. Especially in schools opened under the banner of “school reform” and “student achievement.” Schools offering little more than just academics are no longer the outliers. Throughout the country, as budgets shrink and test scores guide decisions, so much that is not strictly academic and quantifiable is cut.

Each year, more and more school districts nationwide trim the “fat,” programs that enrich students’ lives culturally and help them grow and develop as people, but aren’t specifically academic. As a result, sports, band, art, putting on a play—even a school library—have become “extras” that are not taxpayer supported.

Once, students held bake sales and car washes to fund activities above and beyond the basic. Today, their principals, teachers and parents have assumed that role on a grand scale to pay for books, athletic equipment, after-school activities. Instead of cupcakes and soapsuds, these fundraisers come in the form of grant applications that beg foundations and corporations to underwrite what, until recently, most Americans would have considered the birthright of students in our public schools.