Charting a Course: Local Libraries Can Help the Growing Number of Charter Schools Locate the Resources They Need

Article excerpt

Most people have probably heard about charter schools and the related movement toward school choice that has been gaining momentum since the 1990s. But little is known about the role libraries play in these schools, and the issue is rarely discussed in the media or professional literature.

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Charter schools have been evolving as an alternative to traditional public schools, and many are still relatively young. Unlike home schooling or private schools, these institutions are publicly funded and operate independent of local school districts--and not without some controversy.

For each child enrolled, a charter school receives a fixed dollar amount from the local school district. Laws and regulations vary in each state, but generally charter school administrators are required to apply for and receive a charter from either the local school district or the state. Many educate students in the traditional setting of classrooms within a local school building, while in other situations cyber--charter schools provide computers to students who may be located all across the state. Learning takes place at home with teachers and students primarily communicating online.

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics for 2004-05 shows that charter schools serve a large percentage of the student population in Washington, D.C. (18.3%) and Arizona (8.4%). In most other states, this number falls below 5%--but charter schools are on the rise. According to the Center for Education Reform, in 2006-07 charter schools in the United States grew by 11% to more than 3,900 in 40 states plus the District of Columbia, and educated more than one million students.

So what do we know about libraries and charter schools? "Depending on their status, some charter schools have access to state and district funding for school libraries," explains Julie Walker, executive director of ALA's American Association of School Librarians. "In many cases, these students have access to a school library as well as any databases that are licensed by the district or the state. To me, the primary question in terms of virtual schools is whether or not the students are receiving the types of assignments/instruction that develop the information literacy skills they need to access the resources wherever they reside."

Joseph D'Amico, director of educational assessment and charter school accreditation at the American Academy for Liberal Education, notes that "the presence of libraries in charter schools varies almost as much as there are types of charter schools. Although most recognize the importance of libraries, often the limits imposed on them by very modest facilities prevents them from developing the library they would like to. Additionally, many charter schools struggle financially and thus do not have the level of resources they would like to devote to a library."

One state's story

During the 2005-06 school year in Pennsylvania, approximately one in 38 school-age children attended a charter school. Here's what we learned from a 13-item survey of representatives from Pennsylvania's 115 charter schools--including 12 cyber--charter schools--in late 2005 (based on 40% response):

* 85% of schools have 200 or more students; only 15% have 800 or more.

* 41% have been open for less than five years.

* About 75% report some form of library or collection of similar resources.

* In most cases (63%), materials are selected and maintained by someone other than a librarian (teachers, principals, or parents).

* Roughly one-third employ a librarian or library media specialist. These tend to be the larger, more established schools. In most cases (78%), teachers are instructing students on information/library resources and their use.

When there is a need for information, not surprisingly, the Web is by far the most commonly used tool. …