Recruitment & Retention

How This District Boosted Its Ranks of School Librarians—From Within

By Elizabeth Heubeck — October 18, 2023 5 min read
Shelley Ward
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The nation’s schools have been shedding certified school librarians for the past several years. Between 1999 and 2016, the profession lost the equivalent of more than 10,000 full-time school librarian positions nationwide, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Today, around 30 percent of students do not have full-time school librarians at their school. These positions are often one of the first to be eliminated when districts cut budgets, according to the American Library Association.

Replenishing the ranks of school librarians won’t be easy. Stringent requirements to become a certified school librarian make recruiting for the position challenging. Several states require certified school librarians to hold a master’s degree in library science in addition to a bachelor’s degree and teaching certificate, according to EveryLibrary Institute, a nonprofit advocacy organization. This is a big ask for aspiring school librarians, in terms of time and resources.

But the Charleston County school district in South Carolina, one of the many states requiring its teacher-librarians to earn a master’s degree, has managed to successfully reverse its former teacher-librarian vacancy rate in the last five years. And it did so without recruiting professionals from outside the district.

“In some areas, it has proven difficult to recruit and hire professionals who are certified school librarians to fill open positions,” said Courtney Pentland, the president of the American Association of School Librarians. “In these cases, growing your own from inside the school or district can be incredibly helpful so that the person in the school library is prepared to handle a school librarian’s many responsibilities.”

District leaders in Charleston County attribute its teacher-librarian rebuild to a robust “grow-your-own” program that’s rooted in a strong partnership with a local university; offers attractive incentives including free tuition, flexible programming, and support for candidates; and appears to be contributing to improved academic achievement among its students.

Background: Setting a high bar

Historically, the district of approximately 50,600 students had set a high bar for itself with regard to staffing teacher-librarians. Although South Carolina requires every school with more than 350 students to employ a full-time teacher-librarian, Charleston County aimed to place one of these professionals full time in every school, regardless of the size of its student body. But at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, the district faced 18 teacher-librarian vacancies across its 80-plus schools.

Today, the district reports zero teacher-librarian vacancies.

“We’re really lucky to have 76 certified librarians in our district—committed professionals who take their roles very seriously,” said Christy James, the district library and media services specialist. Here’s how they got there.

Gauging interest, setting parameters

“Knowing that we had 3,500 to 3,600 teachers in our classrooms, we asked ourselves: How many of these teachers might aspire to be a teacher-librarian?” said Bill Briggman, the district’s chief human-resources officer. (The district also is running three additional ‘grow your own’ programs aimed at boosting teacher numbers.)

Briggman approached the University of South Carolina, the only higher education institution in the state to offer school librarian certification, about creating a program for a districtwide cohort of teachers interested in becoming teacher-librarians. The proposed model, he said, was simple: The district would survey teachers to gauge interest and agree to pay the tuition of participants. The funding comes primarily from the district’s human-resources budget. Upon successful completion of the program, the newly certified teacher-librarians would commit to continue serving in the district in their new role for a minimum of five years.

Strong partnership counts

The university agreed to partner with the district to develop a two-year, fully online program that would allow classroom teachers to continue working while pursuing their school librarian certification. The first cohort started in January 2018 with funding for 10 teachers. To date, 41 district teachers have participated successfully in the program.

District leaders attribute the program’s success largely to the cooperative university-school district partnership. The university provides program infrastructure and support to ensure the logistics run smoothly, from the application process to timely graduation, James said.

Getting the word out

The district has used various internal channels to promote the program, from weekly communication platforms to social media promotions. Word-of-mouth helps, too, district leaders said.

“Some of our best recruiters are current librarians,” said James, who notes that, in many ways, the program sells itself.

“It’s 100 percent online, providing the flexibility to allow current teachers to continue teaching and be able to complete their master’s degree for free,” she said. “We also like to emphasize the teacher aspect of the program. You have to be a certified teacher first.”

Return on investment

The “teacher first” element cannot be underestimated, believe experts.

“Hiring someone who will work full time as the school librarian and who is focused solely on school library responsibilities can have significant positive effects on student achievement, reading engagement, information literacy, community building, and much more,” said American Association of School Librarians’ Pentland.

Andy Pruitt, the spokesperson for the Charleston County schools, links the recent districtwide jump in students’ literacy-proficiency scores to its 100 percent teacher-librarian capacity, though the district has not made a scientific study of those results. Over the last few years, the district saw improvements in the English/language arts portion of the state-level literacy-proficiency tests, SC Ready, given to students in grades 3 through 8. The greatest improvements occurred among 4th graders, who overall gained a total of 12 percentage points.

The teacher-librarians go above and beyond the role of librarian, Pruitt explains: They meet with teachers, are well-acquainted with the curriculum, recommend books to students, and more.

“We were at 48 percent proficiency; now we’re over 60 percent, a change from two years ago,” Pruitt said. “There’s no question that this program is beneficial. … It’s got to be one of the reasons for improvements.”

The university has been in contact with a number of other districts in the state about the possibility of offering a similar teacher-to-librarian pipeline program. “Every district across South Carolina is struggling to fill these [teacher-library] positions,” James said. “I think it’s a model the state could adopt.”

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