Can We Make Public Schools More Like Public Libraries?

I have worked at a public library for 11 years and been a public school parent for 14. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve found myself wishing my kids’ schools could be run a little more like the library. Here are some examples:

1. Truancy. During a handful of years one or both of my kids had several colds and missed more than the “allowed” number of days of school. Whereupon I received an automated shaming letter chastising me for my child’s absences and explaining how important education is. These letters always lead me to thinking about the broader issue of how often school districts and the governments that fund school districts rely on a punitive approach to issues. I understand the concern if a student has excessive absenteeism when they’re not ill. But what will actually help get them in the door? Schools are frantic to have a good head count every day so they get full funding. If they can’t get the kids there in the seats, the district is financially punished. In turn, they punish kids and parents when the kids don’t show up. It’s been my observation that punishment is more likely to lead to dropping out altogether. It’s almost as if the students are there to serve the system instead of the other way around.

Wouldn’t it be worth a try to use some positive measures? When people don’t come to the library, the question isn’t “How do we punish them?” The question is “How can we better serve their needs so they’ll want to be here?” Community surveys are done on a regular basis to discover what residents like about what we’re already doing, what things we could do better and what new services folks might wish for us to provide. Occasionally, we’ve kept what are called “No logs” – listings of every instance where a staff member said “No” to a patron request. After a few weeks, it was easy to see what needs weren’t being filled. Several times a day we were saying “No, we don’t have a fax machine for public use.” Well, after realizing how often people were requesting to use one, we do. Now we can say “Yes, there’s a fax machine you can use.”  Same thing with notary services. And maybe when the person comes in to use our fax machine or get something notarized, they’ll notice a flyer for an upcoming program that catches their fancy. Or they’ll see our DVD collection and say “Oh, I didn’t know you had movies here.” And they’ll come back again. Or not. But at least we’ve found one way to be of service to them.

2. Choices.  At the library, you don’t have to do everything or be good at everything. You can choose how much of the library to do. If you want to come to several programs every week, plus checking out print books, ebooks, audiobooks, DVDs and music CDs, go for it! If you only want to use our downloadable music service from home, that’s fine. My 16-year-old is feeling really done with English at high school and he gets top scores on all assessments. Why does he have to keep taking it? Likewise, there have been classes that caught his interest, but the learning he’d already done in the subject happened outside of the school setting and so he didn’t meet the prerequisite. At the library, if a 6-year-old wants to participate in our Lego program, there’s no prerequisite that they must have attended storytime as a three-year-old. Also, you get to choose which books to read and we don’t scold you that they’re too easy or too hard. You can figure that out for yourself. The library doesn’t have a quota. Read one book per year or 70, we’re here for you. If there’s a book you want and we don’t have it, you can suggest we purchase it. If it’s a new book, published within the past year, there’s a good chance we will. What if students could suggest classes or even just have a say in the curriculum of the classes already offered? Would they be more motivated? More interested? Maybe.

3. Cooperation and sharing. Let’s go back to that book you wanted that the library doesn’t own. If it’s older than about a year, we probably won’t purchase it – BUT. We will try to find a library that owns it and request a loan from them. Libraries borrow from and lend to each other constantly in an effort to make as many resources as possible available to as many people as possible. It’s not unusual for a book to journey hundreds of miles to fill one patron request. With today’s technology I wonder if schools could do something similar. My son has had the experience of signing up for a class that didn’t happen because not enough students enrolled for it. But with Skype and other technologies, it seems to me schools working together could come up with enough students for a class that could meet via technology. Or they could arrange for the three or four students from one school to remotely attend a class happening at a different location.

4. Pacing. My library’s lending period for most materials is three weeks. But if you get finished sooner, you don’t have to wait until the end of that three weeks to start reading or listening to the next thing. And if the three weeks passes but you’re not quite finished, you can renew unless there’s a waiting list for the item. Even then, you can get back in line for it and have more time to finish. At school, you have a set amount of time to do the unit. Finish early? Okay, twiddle your thumbs for a while. Not quite done? Too bad. That was your only chance. (I do realize many individual teachers work with students to remedy this; I’m talking about systemic issues, though.)

5. Mixing of age groups. One lovely thing about a public library is how it’s for everyone. We might have a 17-year-old and an 80-year-old in the same “How to Sell Online” class. While there are some general common-sense age guidelines – a 3-year-old can come to story time but not sign up for a gardening seminar – there’s a lot of intergenerational mixing, which is good for everyone. If you’re 90 years old and have never used the public library, you’re welcome to start today. Even programs aimed at a certain demographic aren’t as narrowly restricted as grades in school. Our teen programs have 13-year-olds and 17-year-olds.  Siblings can attend together if they have the same interest.

Looking back over my list, what I see at the core is a desire for schools to be more flexible and less punitive. I know change is hard and complicated, and almost always brings with it unforeseen consequences. But I can dream, can’t I?

Author: thedamari

I live in Missouri, a more beautiful place than many realize. I love writing, reading, walking, bicycling, and making lists. I’ve written poetry since I was seven. A few years ago I branched out into short fiction and memoir pieces. I also perpetually have a novel in progress. My brain pursues ideas at a brisk pace, wandering all over the map. This blog represents one of my efforts to keep up with it.

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