Madison High's Sullivan advocates for books, students
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Madison High School librarian Nancy Sullivan (center), talks with high school seniors Josh Wright (left) and Taylor Beach about what they're reading these days. Fewer than half of the Portland Public Schools have a licensed librarian, full-time or otherwise.

A teenage girl navigates a desperate spiral of meth addiction, rape, pregnancy and family problems in 500 pages of poetic verse.

The hefty paperback, 'Crank,' written by West Coast author Ellen Hopkins, is one of the most popular checkouts at high school libraries these days.

'Kids are relating to her books because they have family members, friends who are affected,' says Nancy Sullivan, the longtime librarian at Northeast Portland's Madison High School. 'Many of them say, 'Oh my gosh, this is the first book I've finished all the way through.' '

It's not just the edgy topics flying off the library bookshelves. Whether it's Japanese manga, Vietnamese or Russian literature or books about health or sports-related occupations, well-staffed and funded libraries are key to engaging kids in learning, many educators will attest.

At high-need schools like Madison in particular - which grew by about a third this year with the addition of Marshall campus students - the school library is more readily accessible than a public library or bookstore.

Yet in school districts here and across the nation, school libraries are being left without much to run on. Fewer than half of Portland Public Schools - 34 of 82 - have a librarian, or media specialist, as they're also called. Of those, 14 are half-time. The remaining 48 schools are staffed with a lesser-paid library assistant who keeps the library operational, but has no training in teaching or library sciences. Nineteen of those 48 assistants work less than half-time.

Such data, however, doesn't give an accurate picture of the state of affairs, says Susan Stone, a PPS teacher-librarian who is this year's president of the Oregon Association of School Libraries.

'It could very well be misinterpreted to say that at least PPS has a higher percentage of librarians than Salem-Keizer, which just cut all but high school librarians,' she says. 'Yet, Salem-Keizer has a much, much better central library services department, and the beginnings of a vision for how to temporarily hopefully manage their libraries in the absence of teacher-librarians in their schools.'

So who's to blame - or thank - for your child's school library staffing? It's all site-based, meaning it's up to the principals whether or not to have a librarian, and whether it's half-time, full-time and whether a budget line exists for the library.

Funding varies from school to school, year to year. Many schools, like Madison, rely on grants and book sales; others receive PTA money to supplement. No PPS library meets the Oregon Quality Education Model recommendation for adequate funding and staffing, which makes Stone long for 'a statewide understanding, vision and commitment for what our libraries could/should be.'

The Portland district isn't alone in the cutbacks. Every school in the David Douglas district had a librarian last year; this year, just the high school has one, and the others are staffed by instructional assistants. Beaverton has librarians in 43 of 51 schools; Hillsboro has just one librarian at each of the four high schools and none in its 29 elementary and middle schools.

Gresham's two large high schools share a librarian. In the Reynolds district, a retiring librarian position at the high school went unfilled while the library is revamped. Each of the three middle schools have a licensed librarian, but the 11 elementary schools have been staffed with assistants for the past three years since state budget cuts forced bigger sacrifices. This year the district added a licensed librarian to oversee the elementary schools.

'I think everybody agrees we'd be better off to have a licensed librarian at all levels, for the knowledge they can impart to students and the resources they can offer,' says Hillsboro district spokeswoman Beth Graser. 'It just needs to be evaluated in the context of the budget for each year.'

Shifting resources

Madison's library was buzzing with excitement last Saturday, as hundreds of community members, teachers and students browsed the stacks of used books at the school's second-annual fundraising sale. Parent Lauren Shapton had collected five pickup trucks full of books from households across the city this past summer.

The sale ended up bringing in $2,000 in proceeds, not as much as they'd hoped for, considering they'd raised $2,500 the year before. But it will pay for the $1,800 in books that teachers and students have requested, and that Sullivan has been unable to fulfill.

Improving the Madison library has been a work in progress. Since landing at the school 10 years ago, Sullivan began with the environment - turning the drab space into a vibrant, welcoming living room.

She painted the mushroom-colored walls turquoise blue, as a backdrop for the hundreds of enormous paper-maché tropical fish that appeared to be floating from the ceilings.

The fish, an art project by a retired professor, were considered a fire hazard and had to be removed from the ceiling. Now they occupy the tops of bookshelves.

She re-carpeted, repainted and rearranged some of the shelving units, and added sections such as the world language books, which include collections in Vietnamese, Russian, French, German, Spanish and several less-common languages.

Finally, Sullivan had a huge sign constructed from cardboard and white lights, spelling the word 'respect' in capital letters.

'That's the big message we wanted to instill,' she says, noting that she is constantly impressed by the genuine respect students have for one another in such a diverse population.

Advocating for books

Other steps Sullivan has taken to promote literacy at the school include:

• Prompting Madison staff to renew its commitment to Sustained Silent Reading, the block of time in which students must keep busy with a book at their desk.

The silent reading time now happens building-wide during the first 20 minutes of the second period of the day. She points to studies that show that students who read more perform higher in tests in all subjects.

• Implementing the first 'Madison Reads' program last year, inspired by the effort at Cleveland High.

From January to March, the whole school as well as Madison community members were invited to read the same book, and some of the teachers integrate it into their class. The author visits at the end to read from the book and answer questions.

This year, the book is 'Robopocalypse,' a sci-fi thriller and bestseller by Portland author Daniel H. Wilson. Needing about 200 copies of the book, Sullivan has come up with the idea of a 'viral book request.' She's putting a plea to all of her personal book clubs that they should read 'Robopocalypse,' too, and then kindly donate their used copy to Madison.

• Speaking at Wordstock, the two-day literary festival at the Oregon Convention Center.

Sullivan will speak about banned books at 2 p.m. Oct. 9, capping Banned Books Week.

When it comes to books that deal with sex or addiction, some believe that it'll 'encourage a young person to romanticize or experiment with these behaviors,' Sullivan wrote in a blog post for Wordstock. 'From my perspective, I see the impact as exactly the opposite. Not only do well-written and compelling stories that confront these issues help teenagers make positive choices, they can also trigger impulses to learn more, help others, or empathize with those who might be struggling in a way that hearing a 30-second public service announcement (or the nightly news) never will.'

Madison students are thrilled with Sullivan's advocacy.

'The library is never boring; I see it as watching a movie in your head,' says 16-year-old Manar Mohammed, a junior who moved here from Syria three years ago and now speaks English without trace of an accent.

Manar loves to read so much, she wakes up early most mornings to get to school when the library opens at 7 a.m. She started with Harry Potter and graphic novels in middle school; lately she's interested in futuristic novels with female heroes and is obsessed with astronomy.

Being a serious reader has changed her life, she says. Before, she was withdrawn, in her own shell. 'Now, I've started talking to people about the books I read,' she says. 'I often see people on the bus with the same book.'

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