November 19, 2017

Conspiring to Educate: Working together for transitioning students

JOINING FORCES Resources for transitioning learners. (Clockwise from top r.): CCC’s CPL @ Metro banner; a fourth grader working on her Bigfoot Field Guide; CPL @ Metro’s popular collection; community members explore Colorado’s Anything York Street on the Mapleton Public Schools’ Skyview Campus; and CPL @ Metro, located in a former storage room

JOINING FORCES Resources for transitioning learners. (Clockwise from top r.): CCC’s CPL @ Metro banner; a fourth grader working on her Bigfoot Field Guide; CPL @ Metro’s popular collection; community members explore Colorado’s Anythink York Street on the Mapleton Public Schools’ Skyview Campus; and CPL @ Metro, located in a former storage room

Today’s learners have more options than ever on their paths to education, but they will also encounter more obstacles. We may live in an age of access to information, but it’s becoming increasingly easy for students to miss out on crucial information during their middle and high school years—a high school diploma is no guarantee that they will be prepared for the requirements of college—and after graduation, especially for those who do not go on to higher education. Working as partners, however, different types of libraries can join forces to help students bridge the gap from high school to higher ed to the workforce while remaining a viable part of their lives.

Schools are doing their best to address ­inequities in information literacy, but it is not always easy to establish the necessary alliances between schools and colleges as students transition from one to the other, especially when one high school might send students to 100 different institutions.

Libraries, on the other hand, are well positioned to help all kinds of learners. Most people have library access of some kind, and the correspondences among library services at different points in their learning careers can offer a level of familiarity as they move from one stage to another.

According to the Association of College and Research Library’s (ACRL) Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, first developed in 2000 and currently under revision, students need to be able to define their information needs, access and evaluate information, and use it efficiently. Critical thinking, the ability to conduct in-depth research, to appraise sources beyond a Google search, and to understand the ethics surrounding the use of material are all necessary competencies.

Traditional students are not necessarily learning these skills. Even more at risk are students in economically disadvantaged or rural communities, students with physical or learning challenges, English-language learners, high school dropouts, and unaffiliated learners who do not go on to postsecondary schooling but still need to compete in an increasingly information-based workforce.

No one institution can serve the needs of all students. School library budgets are declining, public libraries are struggling to keep their funding and work with a diverse and changing population, and academic libraries are focused on meeting the needs of students and faculty.

Finding common ground

With information literacy initiatives falling under such all-­encompassing rubrics as “K-16 education” (or even “PK-20”), it’s not surprising that many collaborations have been gaining institutional support within the American Library Association (ALA) and its subdivisions. In 2000, ACRL and the American Association of School Libraries (AASL) issued a “Blueprint for Collaboration,” outlining ways in which K–12 and college and university libraries could work together, including cosponsoring programming, jointly developing performance metrics, and partnering on professional development opportunities. Six years later, AASL teamed with the Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC) and the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) to form the AASL/ALSC/YALSA Interdivisional Committee on School/Public Library Cooperation.

Much of this work is about finding common ground. “What we want to do is try to build relationships between school and public library staff that can really improve outcomes for children, families, and students,” says the Interdivisional Committee’s chair, Jenna Nemec-Loise. “One of the big things we’d like to do is build awareness of…the barriers to collaboration that prevent school and public libraries from working successfully together. Often we don’t have a clear picture of what our counterparts do every day.” With that awareness, she believes, comes greater potential for uniting at all levels. Collaboration, she stresses, is a form of advocacy.

It helps, of course, to have advocates who are well positioned to make partnerships happen. Nashville’s Limitless Libraries is an ambitious civic program launched in 2009 that gives Metro Nashville Public School middle and high school students on-demand access to the entire holdings of the Nashville Public Library system, as well as several local university collections. Because the program had Mayor Karl Dean’s blessing—he originated the idea—it was able to move from pilot to full implementation efficiently. Within three years of its inception, Limitless Libraries was serving all 128 Metro Nashville Public Schools and by all accounts has flourished. (See “Libraries with No Bounds: How Limitless Libraries Transformed Nashville Public Schools’ Libraries,” School Library Journal.)

Public library/school partnerships are becoming more commonplace—the Interdivisional Committee has collected an impressive list of projects on its website—and as school library budgets become ever less secure these collaborations look like increasingly better propositions. When public libraries collaborate with schools, students gain access to larger collections as well as to databases, community resources, and programs and the expertise of librarians. It is relatively easy to link student IDs to library card systems, and with electronic catalogs and floating collections even grade school youth can take advantage of interlibrary loans.

Some public and school libraries are literally merging, modifying public library spaces to serve double duty as school media centers. In Colorado, the Anythink library system opened a branch in June 2013 on the Mapleton Public Schools’ Skyview Campus, home to five different schools. The library is strongly engaged with the schools but is simultaneously open to the public, with a wide variety of programming for all ages. Anythink facilities count “customer service” as part of their mission; in this case, customer service encompasses K–12 learning as well as community literacy.

Chicago’s Back of the Yards Library, which opened in ­August 2013, was built with a similar mission in mind. As part of the Chicago Public Library system it serves a general constituency, but during school hours it is also the library for the new Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School. The two buildings share a common wall and a common objective: to bring a full-service 21st-century library to all members of the community. The branch employs a part-time teen librarian and a part-time teen associate in addition to its regular staff and features an enhanced YA collection as well as a fully loaded media lab.

Collaboration for collections

Lesley Farmer coordinates the librarianship program at California State University Long Beach and is part of ACRL’s task force for revising its Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. While her alignment is with the academic community, she feels that when the default is to teach information literacy at the college or university level, community college students, trade school students, and unaffiliated learners can be left out. This is especially counter­productive because “it’s often those students who need the most help,” she says. “Not only because they might be less prepared, but I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job in terms of pointing out how explicitly information literacy affects your daily life—why plumbers need to be information literate, why hair stylists need to be. I’ll also point my finger at K-12 schools…. They really don’t do as good a job in postsecondary counseling. How are you going to transition to daily life? How would you get into the construction industry? And libraries should be able to help with that.”

As part of a formal assessment of information literacy goals in 2009, the librarian faculty at Cuyahoga Community College (CCC), Parma, OH, began investigating ways to improve student retention and graduation rates. Community college libraries are often limited in their holdings to material that supports the curriculum, leaving no room in the budget for popular items such as audiobooks, urban fiction, biographies, sf, cookbooks, magazines, and children’s material (more than a third of low-income and first-generation college students are parents).

In a paper presented at the ACRL 2013 conference, CCC faculty librarians Daniel Overfield (Metropolitan Campus) and Coleen Roy (Western Campus) discussed the link between student engagement and popular reading and what they called community colleges’ failure “to completely create the ‘heart of the campus’ feel that so many academic research libraries can rightly claim.” Extensive acquisitions weren’t in the budget at CCC. Instead, CCC initiated two very different partnerships with two public library systems.

Overfield invited Cleveland Public Library (CPL) to install and maintain a satellite collection in a dedicated room of its Metropolitan Campus library. CPL already had successful satellite collections at other area four-year universities, and CCC felt that its students, most of whom lived in the area, would be an ideal user audience. A storage room was refurbished for the collection, which opened in 2012; CCC painted, installed carpet, and provided seating, and CPL furnished shelves. CPL brought over popular magazines as well and began providing library cards in 2013. “Our little room adds an entirely different dimension to the library,” Overfield says.

Rather than install a separate collection that is maintained on campus by public library staff, Cuyahoga County Public Library—which serves CCC’s Western Campus—rotates a collection of popular titles through the college every 90 days. These also occupy a dedicated space within the library, which Roy outfitted with soft seating, lower shelving, and magazines. She described the room to LJ as a popular gathering spot for both students and faculty, who use it for reading, talking—even knitting. “It’s really enhanced the whole library,” she enthused, “and we didn’t have to fight anybody. They were all on board from the beginning.”

Building research skills early

The Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 44 states and the District of Columbia, seek to identify benchmarks that high school students need to meet in order to succeed in postsecondary education and today’s workforce. However, critics argue that these standards fail to address a number of less tangible skills that are also crucial for student success.

While access to collections and services is a definite plus, libraries can also help transitioning students learn methodology that will give them an advantage. It is increasingly clear that high school students aren’t prepared to do college-level research, and while there are a number of remedial initiatives under way once students enter college, library programs are trying to head off the need as young as fourth grade. Much of this involves learning how to leverage the libraries available to them at every level.

Library coordinator Dana Knott and reference and instruction librarian Kristine Kinzer, of the Delaware Campus Learning Center at Columbus State Community College (CSCC), OH, believe it’s never too early to start children on the road to information literacy. Beginning in 2012, they have been working with elementary school students from the Laura Woodward Elementary School during their annual “day of college,” when fourth graders come to the CSCC campus to experience a slice of college life firsthand.

Knott and Kinzer designed a unit focused on information literacy and source evaluation by way of researching Bigfoot—a subject sure to catch the interest of most youngsters. In another nod to engaging the age group, they incorporated the evaluation criteria known as the CRAP test: measuring the value of a source based on its currency, reliability, authority, and purpose.

While the day was intended as outreach—to demystify the idea of higher education for students in the economically mixed district and to show them that college was within their grasp—Knott and Kinzer felt they could also provide concrete tools to use now and the understanding that this work is part of a skill set they can use all their lives. The program is in its third year, and the two librarians hope to include other schools from the district as well.

The program was enhanced by extras such as clickers and “Bigfoot Field Guide” folders and a well-designed LibGuide that students could access after the class was over, but those were secondary to the chance to provide younger students with a lightbulb moment. Knott was impressed, she states, at “how quickly they sharpened their critical eyes from the first source we looked at to the last. By the end they were very skeptical about everything” (although some students still claimed to have seen Bigfoot themselves).

Grassroots options

Joanne Melinson, a middle and high school librarian at ­Sacramento Country Day School, CA, hasn’t waited for funding or executive approval to help her students bridge the gap. ­Melinson teaches a senior seminar on college research, and once her seniors have chosen the schools they will be attending she personally contacts each of their future college librarians. “I ask the librarians questions about where they expect incoming freshmen to be in their skills and what advice they might have for them,” she explains. “I then share this information with the kids. I also use the information to plan my ­curriculum.”

In addition, she checks in with her students’ middle school teachers—to build on the work they’ve already done but also because “having a shared vocabulary is useful so the kids see continuity from one level to the next.” And this year she is meeting with a local public librarian, a few area high school and college librarians, and a college professor to further the dialog.

Melinson has the advantage of working in a small private school. However, her program is one with few moving parts and could easily be adapted in other scenarios. She suggests that a librarian working with a larger class might instead contact a representative sample of college librarians—especially because so many of those she speaks to have similar responses.

“The first year…I was surprised to find out that [the librarians] were in almost total agreement about things that are lacking or that might be surprising [to the students],” she affirms. She also discovered that they all tended to use the same terminology, which she then brought to the lower school librarian so that students could be exposed to a consistent vocabulary over the years.

Esther Grassian, of Lifelong Information Literacy, a group of California librarians representing different types of libraries, agrees that often one of the biggest steps toward helping today’s learners move to the next level is finding a common vocabulary. While academic libraries have much to offer public libraries in terms of instructional practice, “We have to understand each other’s language first,” she says.

Finding a shared vocabulary may be the most basic of initiatives, but it is a crucial place to start for libraries seeking to serve learners in transition. “Every time I hear from the college librarians,” Melinson states, “I feel that we should have these conversations more often.” In the end, bridging the gap for students and lifelong learners starts with different types of libraries discovering ways to bridge their own gaps—something that doesn’t have to rely on big budgets.

The Interdivisional Committee’s Nemec-Loise concurs: “You can get by on a shoestring or no budget if you capitalize on the people in the community who make things happen.”

This article was published in Library Journal's December 1, 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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