Pro-Library Forces Coalesce Against Cuts
By Barrington M. Salmon
WI Staff Writer
Bella Dihn-Zarr came to the United States from Vietnam as a four year old unable to speak, read or write English. The person who helped her master the language, she recalled, was a public school librarian. She has never forgotten the seminal nature of that interaction, she said.
So when she, her husband Robert and other parents found out that District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson had followed through on a proposal to cut librarians from 57 schools, that was a call to arms. They are members of a group of concerned parents and children's advocates who demonstrated for almost two hours in front of the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest on the morning of July 11.
Dihn-Zarr and other protestors marched back-and-forth in front of the Wilson Building, engaging passersby, soliciting signatures and explaining the current situation.
"We found out the week before school was out. It was done very quietly," said Dihn-Zarr, a public health scientist who specializes in injury prevention. "In 24 hours, 130 Ludlow Taylor Elementary School parents had sent a letter to Mayor Vincent Gray. They consider librarians to be optional. We're angry and frustrated."
"The mayor has ignored us and Kaya Henderson has refused to meet with us. There's no power like an angry parent."
Dihn-Zarr's husband agreed.
"It's disenfranchisement, a social injustice," said Robert Zarr, a pediatrician who has lived and worked in the District for the past 11 years. "If you say you want to have a level playing field for all children, they have to be able to read. You can't have an empty library."
"What's more fundamental to a child's health and well-being than being able to read? Study after study shows the link between health and literacy. From filling out a job application to crossing the street, all require the ability to read. This should not be a thing of teachers versus libraries."
Most protestors had colorful placards hanging around their necks indicating their support for school librarians. They'd set up tables by the steps of city hall with books, cookies and other treats and "Save the School Libraries" petitions they hope will force Henderson and Gray to reverse what all called a decision that will have long-term negative consequences for D.C. children.
Henderson's plan would remove librarians in schools with student enrollment of 300 or less and larger schools would not lose their librarians. However, these schools would be included under a "flexible funding," category in the budget, allowing principals to make the final decision about whether to keep or cut librarians.
The cuts come at a time when 4th and 8th-graders test below basic reading levels nationally and critics argue that the cuts proposed by Gray and Henderson would undermine the contributions made by individuals, groups and the private-sector who have joined to help restore a number of school libraries.
The message Dihn-Zarr, 41, and her compatriots say they seek to send is that school librarians are essential and are not to be thought of as an occasional treat.
Henderson wasn't available for comment but a spokesperson issued a statement outlining her position and the reasons for her decision.
"In these hard budget times, we have to make tough budget choices," Henderson said. "Currently, our portfolio of school buildings far exceeds our needs based on enrollment, which unfortunately means that the costs are too high and we have to make cuts.Our decision to eliminate the allocation for a librarian at our smallest schools, enrolling fewer than 300 students, was not made easily. We know the importance of school librarians and the role of literacy at our schools."
But some like Daibernee Primus and Peter MacPherson are unconvinced.
"The tone-deafness of the chancellor is breathtaking," said MacPherson, whose 15-year-old daughter is a sophomore at School Without Walls in Northwest. "We're the point of the spear in this effort. She has pretty shamelessly misrepresented what's going on."
MacPherson, 51, and president of the Capitol Hill Cluster School Parent-Teachers Association, said Henderson's decision will directly affect half of the District's high schools, half of its middle schools and significant numbers of elementary and education campuses across the city.
One way to correct this problem, he said, is to establish dedicated funding for school librarians.
Dinh-Zarr, whose 4-year-old son Kai attends Ludlow Taylor in Northeast, said she is incensed that Henderson has refused to meet with parents. She and a group of parents did meet with some Henderson surrogates after Gray instructed the chancellor to meet with them, but that didn't go well.
"They said libraries aren't important," Dinh-Zarr recalled. "They told us to go get private funding to pay for our libraries and that they planned to leave it to principals. My husband thought I was going to jump over the desk."
Primus said it's unconscionable that 16,600 children will not have the services of a school librarian in the next school year.
"A gentleman told us that teachers should work librarian skills into their other work. That makes no sense. We don't think a teacher should take over that responsibility," she said. "The point of the matter is, you want kids' scores to go up so cutting librarians doesn't make sense."
Ward 6 Council member Tommy Wells stopped by the tables on the way into the Wilson Building to thank members "for fighting for our schools" and he bought a box of brownies for his staff after signing the petition.
"The thing is they're taking ownership to say that this is a public value to have libraries," he explained. "Citizens have taken ownership."
Wells, 56, said there is an ongoing debate about the role a library plays in a community.
"The chancellor has a particular view of the role of libraries which may be of some merit," Wells said. "We pay her to be the education leader. She must be accountable. Test results mean nothing. The most important thing is if parents want to send their children to our schools."
Zarr, 41, promised to use as many methods of protest as needed to get the desired result.
"They have to hear us. We're law-abiding citizens and we have the right to be heard," the doctor said. It's a disgrace. D.C. should be the model for the country ... we want the best for all our children, not just the ones who live in wealthy areas. This is not about politics, it's a non-partisan issue," he said.