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.
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. While most charter schools do not subscribe to electronic research resources, one-third do use online encyclopedias like World Book Online or tools such as Gale's Student Resource Center or ProQuest's Reading A--Z. Interestingly, the cyber--charter schools did not appear to be using online products any more than the charters housed within a more traditional school building.
Local partnerships are key
While some Pennsylvania charter schools are developing their own libraries, existing local libraries appear to be an important resource. Nearly all encourage their students to use a local library. Some use class time for visits and a few collaborate with a neighboring academic library. In several cases cooperative relationships have developed, with special programs for charter school students at the partnering library.
Our most surprising discovery revealed that, for the most part, charter schools do not seem to be taking advantage of the research databases provided to schools and public libraries through Pennsylvania's statewide POWER Library program, which gives students access to numerous subscription databases to search age-appropriate encyclopedias, locate full-text news and magazine articles, find biographical information, and much more.
To meet the requirements for participation, schools must have a certified librarian, a cataloged collection, and pay a modest annual fee of $180. Although most were at least somewhat aware of this resource, more than half the schools we heard from reported never using it. We suspect the majority of charter schools are not participating in this program due to budget constraints. However, students are still free to access the available databases through their public library.
We also learned that only a small percentage of instruction on the information-seeking process involves a librarian or library media specialist. Charter schools could benefit greatly from partnering with existing libraries to learn more about available resources and how they can be used effectively. With this knowledge, teachers and administrators at charter schools can more easily ensure that high-quality research materials are available to every student and can encourage their use. Local libraries may also be able to play an important role by serving any cyber--charter school students who reside in their region.
"Charter schools often have to create libraries from scratch because, unlike other public schools, they can't simply draw on the budget and resources of larger systems," explains Nelson Smith, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
It is possible that as charter schools continue to evolve, libraries will grow with them, but D'Amico stresses that "most charters will hire teachers before any other staff. After teachers they will hire counselors or academic coordinators. Librarians will probably be among the lowest staff position on charter schools' list of hiring priorities."
Most of Pennsylvania's charter schools seem to indicate that they are interested in working more closely with their local libraries: 91% would like to develop further relationships with a public library, 80% with a university library, and 63% with a school district library.
However, D'Amico cautions that this type of collaboration can also be a challenge for many schools: "Trips to even nearby libraries require charters to take time away from what they consider their most important mission--packing the time they have with students with instructional activities. For a vast majority of charter schools, local libraries are just too far away."
But if charter schools communicate with libraries about their curriculum, librarians can suggest appropriate electronic and print resources and perhaps offer training to teachers or students when needed. Here exists another wonderful opportunity for librarians to reach out to students, teachers, and parents in their communities. We hope this snapshot of Pennsylvania charter school libraries will encourage further research in this area.…