Tuscaloosa City Schools Find Success with Librarian, Reading Specialist Partnerships

Tuscaloosa City Schools centered librarians in literacy efforts and has boosted reading engagement, raised test scores, and reinvigorated staff. The program's success can be a model for others, especially as schools and educators will need to come together to overcome the probable academic slide from school closures.

Creating lifelong readers is the goal of any school program, but many districts struggle with how to build a culture of literacy among students. Faced with that dilemma, educators in Tuscaloosa, AL, set out to find a solution and discovered the answer was right in front of them: Put the people most closely involved with reading in the same roomschool librarians, reading specialists and literacy coaches. This holistic approach to literacyone that engages the very staff who address reading at every levelis paying dividends. The early successes lead district officials to believe their goal of making sure every third grader can read on grade level is achievable.

For too long, Tuscaloosa City Schools superintendent Mike Daria says librarians had been restricted to their physical space in their school, and, as experts in literacy, they should be part of the conversation. 

“They were working divorced from our other experts in literacy, our reading coaches,” says Daria, who has been named the Alabama Community Education Association 2020 Superintendent of the Year. “That makes no sense. You all should work together. We’ve got the same mission. So then we truly put them together in a professional learning group and said, 'Can you guys talk and learn together and plan together?'"

This partnership was long overdue.

“It’s OK to admit we missed this for a while,” says Andrew Maxey, director of special programs for the Tuscaloosa City Schools. “Teaching someone to read is not the same as producing a reader. The first step for us was recognizing the work of libraries and librarians was an indispensable part of developing readers and recommitting to that.”

Last year, 79 percent of the city’s kindergartners ended the year ready for first grade in reading. In past years, only 30 percent to 40 percent of students had achieved that benchmark. Additionally, historical data, he says, shows that those numbers remain consistent through third grade. But early indicators, so far, have shown first and second graders entered school at higher levels of reading proficiency than in the past.

“We had forgotten what a library and a librarian was supposed to do for a school. We had begun treating libraries like a place to have special events, scholarship signings, and parties,” says Maxey. “We had forgotten that libraries are explicitly designed to be a powersource for the school. Reading is the most fundamental, the most core mission of a school. Librarians are trained for helping to create readers.”

Tuscaloosa’s decision to put librarians and libraries at the center of its literacy efforts is boosting reading engagement, raising test scores, and reinvigorating partnerships among its staff.

Bringing librarians to the table
When it comes to students’ reading habits, school librarians have a wealth of information. They know what books students are checking out. They can tell who is engaged during booktalks. And they can often identify which students are struggling. Yet, in many schools, librarians aren’t part of the conversation on how to create a meaningful literacy program.

“I realized there was a missing group,” says Daria. “I had one of those ‘duh’ moments. How am I missing the librarians in this?”

As soon as Daria engaged his district librarians, they began devising a plan to help address students’ critical reading needs. Shelley Dorrill, a librarian and media specialist at Paul W. Bryant High School, says district librarians were excited about the opportunity to work on a growth plan. They were also added to the school leadership team, helping to make decisions on the school improvement plan, says Daria.

“That was a very powerful thing for us as librarians,” Dorrill says. “We wear a lot of hats, but not always the hat we’re kind of trained to be focused on and that we’re specialists in.”

First, district librarians used their existing quarterly meetings to discuss what they, as trained literacy professionals, could bring to the table to boost their colleagues’ efforts in each school. The answer: reading engagement.

“Literacy is a two-sided coin,” says Dorrill. “It’s the coin of reading instruction and all that is required that students have to learn how to do in order to become truly literate people. But at the same time, the hope is that they will read things they enjoy and read a lot of things.”

Librarians and literacy coaches from every school started meeting quarterly to decide how to combine their strengths. They mapped out their roles and responsibilities—a key component ensuring that everyone’s talents were utilized.

“We joke that we’re a curriculum think tank,” Dorrill says.

Now, each school has a literacy plan that involves all the key stakeholders—from administrators to teachers to reading interventionists to literacy coaches to librarians. For instance, at Bryant High School, it’s enabled educators to evaluate the needs of the entire school, as well as individual students. The team piloted a “data dive” where they held individualized discussions with every student in the school (parents were invited, too) that included conversations on attendance, grades, reading levels, goal setting.

“We asked them, ‘Where would you like to be? This is where we would like you to grow over the next semester.’ I had never experienced that as an educator,” says Dorrill. “This could not have happened if we had worked in our own little pockets.”

Jasmine Hale, a literacy coach at Bryant High School who works with teachers in the classroom, said the new approach has really boosted the strategies she puts in place with her students. In one such case, the staff was working with intervention students on self-directed reading and giving them time in class to read.

“They [librarians] know how to strategically place books in the students’ hands that are challenging them, but also sparking an interest,” says Hale, who frequently confers with her librarian colleagues located in the office next door.

And it’s working. The school’s ninth-grade reading scores showed a 13 percent growth over the previous year, according to Hale. And Dorrill says checkouts from the school library have tripled.

Investing in libraries
Students are finally getting excited about reading, and that’s due, in part, to the district’s efforts to boost the collections of city schools, adding culturally relevant and more modern texts. There had been virtually no funding to buy books for 10 years in the state of Alabama, which resulted in outdated and aging books lining the shelves, and a disengaged student body.

“I asked our faculty, ‘Why is our reading at this low level? There’s no reason why we cannot teach a child to read at high levels,’” says Daria, who held listening sessions at every school when he joined the district four years ago. “One teacher held up a book and she said, ‘Dr. Daria, you want our children to read, right? And you want them to read proficiently, right?’ She said, ‘These are the books that we send home to our kiddos.’ And she held up this old library book. And it was this old ragged book. It wasn’t visually appealing, you could tell it was aged. And she said, ‘This is the material that we tell our students to read.’”

To address the concerns, the district has allocated $50,000 toward each school library’s collection as the school building gets renovated or replaced. Daria says eight to 10 of the city’s 22 schools have benefited since the initiative was started three years ago.

“It’s really neat to see,” he says. “When we put that budget there and the new books come in. In every case, the circulation has exponentially changed. That makes perfect sense.”

In addition, the district started a fundraising campaign, Strong Libraries; Strong Schools, to help bring every library collection to "exemplary" status. The district has also allocated some of its Title 1 funding toward replenishing collections. And the state is also giving school libraries a small financial boost to make up for past deficits.

“There are no people that don’t like to read. There are people who don’t like to read what we are offering them and that’s on us,” said Maxey, who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in 2018 and raised several thousand dollars to fund libraries in city schools.

Collaborating in the classroom and beyond
But the district’s literacy efforts extend beyond the library and classroom.

For example, Bryant High School secured a $3,000 grant from nonprofit First Book, which was used to create a literacy night where they gave away more than 2,000 books.

“We wanted to make sure the books were interesting to our students, reflected students in a way, and pushed them outside their comfort zone,” said Hillary Russell, one of the school’s library media specialists.

And Maxey worked with district librarians to build a collaborative relationship with the city’s public library, which has a larger digital collection. Students now have access to the children's and young adults/juvenile section of the public library’s digital collection. The city library and schools also collaborated on a summer reading program.

Now that the Tuscaloosa City Schools are united under a singular goal around literacy, the chance to build more opportunities for students is growing.

“Basically anytime we came to him [Daria] and said we’d like to try this, he’d say, “‘Yes, go for it. Love it. Go!’” says Dorrill. “They value literacy in our district. And they are supporting what needs to be supported to make that goal happen.”


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