Why D.C. Can't Read

By David Nicholson
Monday, May 15, 2006

When Coolidge High School librarian Lynn Kauffman received notice a few weeks ago that her position was being eliminated, she was dumbfounded. After all, it wasn't as if she hadn't been doing her job.

The library was a shambles when she came to the school in the District's Brightwood neighborhood in the fall of 2002. Years of leaks had damaged the ceiling. Moldy, mildewed books were stuck to the shelves. The card catalogue was on its side, contents scattered.

In 3 1/2 years, Kauffman and a crew of students, teachers, parents and neighborhood volunteers transformed the library, cleaning it and discarding outdated and inappropriate books. She organized a partnership with the Special Libraries Association to assess needs and set up a computer catalogue. And she raised about $16,000 for new books and materials from foundations and donors, including this newspaper.

Under pressure from parents and residents who support Kauffman's efforts, Coolidge Principal L. Nelson Burton has agreed to let her return half time next year. But his initial decision to install a "computer lab coordinator" in the library stands -- one more example of the D.C. public schools' misplaced priorities and shortsightedness.

This is a school system in which -- according to its just-released Master Education Plan -- most kindergartners have "no exposure to books at home." Average reading scores on a national standardized test (according to a recent letter from a U.S. deputy secretary of education to Superintendent Clifford Janey) "were lower than every other participating city school district."

The result of this abysmal record is that a third of the city's high school students drop out without graduating. An equal percentage of District adults read at or below the third-grade level.

Given these horrifying statistics, why would anyone want to remove someone who has created a program as successful as Kauffman's? Unfortunately, that's the kind of question we ask all too often of D.C. public schools.

The Master Education Plan calls for developing "challenging expectations for reading/English language arts" -- education-speak for making sure kids know how to read and write. But it also calls for surveying city schools to see what works and trying to replicate those practices in other schools.

School system administrators could do worse than to try what Lynn Kauffman has at Coolidge. Even before the library was ready, she began going to classes at Coolidge to tell students how important it is to read. She gave them books. She also asked them to make a commitment to read one book a month.

Only 17 did that first year. Still, Kauffman didn't give up. Next year there were 32. Now there are about 60 students in the reading group -- about 10 percent of the school's students. Four times a year, more than 30 literacy volunteers -- parents, neighbors and Coolidge alumni -- come to school to discuss with students the books they've been reading.

Peruse student reading lists and you'll find predictable titles and authors -- "Harry Potter," R.L. Stine and onetime rapper Sister Souljah. But you'll also find books you might not have expected at a school where most students read below grade level: Mark Twain's "Pudd'nhead Wilson," "Othello" and "Night," by Elie Wiesel.

"The thing that is so amazing to me and that I've witnessed is that if you give kids books, they want to read," Kauffman said. "And if you give them incentives, they will read more." Then she goes on to say what should be obvious -- but isn't -- to administrators: "If you don't talk books, they're not going to read."

D.C.'s Master Education Plan pays lip service to the importance of libraries, calling for elementary schools to have librarians who work at least half time and for middle schools to have "a fully functioning library." But it says nothing about libraries in high schools.

After she was told she wouldn't be returning to Coolidge next fall, Kauffman testified before the Board of Education and the D.C. Council's Committee on Education, which is chaired by Ward 3 council member Kathy Patterson (a candidate for council chairman).

As part of her research for her testimony -- and to answer questions Patterson raised -- Kauffman surveyed her peers in the city's schools. She found, she says, that more than half the city's schools -- including seven high schools -- have no librarian.

She's still waiting to hear back from Patterson, school system staff and the board.

That shouldn't be surprising, however, in a system that believes computers are more important than books. It is committed to a kind of industrial education that focuses on measurable outcomes and that all too often seems designed for the convenience of teachers and administrators rather than for the students it's supposed to serve.

David Nicholson is a Washington writer.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company