To Members of the Clarke County Board of Education:
I am writing in regard to the proposed elimination of media center paraprofessionals from next year’s budget. The mission of the school library has shifted as notions of media and information literacy have expanded. The influx of technology into the library and the school has created a need for more library services, rather than fewer, as students and teachers require assistance with locating, accessing, evaluating, and using these newly available resources. In addition, the technology itself requires a significant amount of support. The presence of trained paraprofessionals in our media centers allows Clarke County to make the most of its substantial investment in instructional technology over the last decade. Finally, the presence of parapros in the libraries has a positive effect on student behavior and maximizes the use of classroom time for instruction, rather than dealing with discipline problems.
Here are some examples of each of these instances in which having a paraprofessional has made a difference at Burney-Harris-Lyons:
One of our collaborative projects, Connecting with Literature, for which we received a Foundation for Excellence grant, changed the way teachers and students use computer resources. Although teachers were aware of Web 2.0 tools such as Glogster and Prezi, few had yet integrated them into the classroom. Having a pararo meant I was able to write the grant, participate in planning meetings, and spend time with classes as they worked in the labs as well as in the library. As a result of the project, many more teachers and students are using these tools with confidence. The project has been instrumental in helping students understand that technology can give them the ability to create and communicate in a variety of ways.
Students who are part of our school’s weekly video news magazine have had the benefit of learning the principles of video-recording and editing, using iMovie on iPod Touches and an iPad during BHL’s Extended Learning Time, even as other classes come in to use computers and check out books. My parapro assists them while I supervise the video crew, helping them send their work to their teacher or printing if necessary.
The presence of my parapro in the media center means that many times I can check out technology problems in classrooms when they occur, or if I am working with a group, ask my parapro to troubleshoot. Teachers appreciate the fact that they can continue to supervise and teach the class while one of us identifies the problem. This has also meant fewer helpdesk tickets for technology support staff.
I know that if I am attending a conference to gather new ideas for our media program or presenting myself to share some of the wonderful things happening in our school libraries, I never have to worry that someone unfamiliar with the library cannot help a child find what she needs or cannot recognize when a young patron needs a friendly smile and an encouraging word. My parapro is a longtime member of the Athens community and knows many of the students from her years in Clarke County’s elementary schools or from their neighborhood. Her relationships with students and their families have allowed her to mentor those struggling to find their way in middle school.
While I welcome the district’s call for community volunteers to help in the schools, there are limits to what volunteers can do, and the nature of volunteering means that their other obligations come first, creating uncertainty about when they will be available. Also, in a high-poverty area like Athens, many parents are unable to volunteer, either because they are working two or more jobs to make ends meet, or because they are dealing directly with transportation, medical, or other crises families encounter when the money runs out. Those parents who are able and willing to volunteer in the schools are probably already doing so. Volunteers from the University of Georgia can help, and I would love to see more involvement by UGA students. The transient nature of that involvement and the fact that it is not a full-time commitment means that their roles will be much more limited than those of full-time CCSD employees.
Rather than cutting services in its media centers, Clarke County needs to ensure that, in times of economic crisis, we maintain support for school libraries. Last year, when it was announced that the district was implementing the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme, we were told repeatedly that the media center is the heart of the IB school. I believe that IB, like the technology the district has invested in, has the potential to be transformational for our schools. But that will require rethinking economic priorities so that employees like the media center parapros who work directly with students and who support faculty and staff in the school continue to provide the services that have enabled our schools to achieve.
I realize that these are difficult times for school budgets, but there must be other areas to cut first. Some cuts suggested by members of the community might yield small gains (e.g., going paperless, adjusting thermostats, avoiding duplication of forms in accounting) but are steps in the right direction. Salary cuts and furloughs for the district’s more highly paid employees would result in significant savings and potentially save the parapro jobs. Professional learning that makes the most of the expertise of our own CCSD educators rather than outside consultants could also save money for the district.
Thank you very much for your attention and for your consideration. I appreciate your commitment to public schools in Athens as our community looks for solutions to these challenges.