(Update: New info on status of library)
Students at a public school in Chicago were furious when they learned that their beloved librarian, Sara Sayigh, had to leave because her position was being cut by the school district because of budget problems. Not only was her library a safe place for academic and extracurricular activities, they also knew that she was one of only three full-time librarians left in Chicago’s more than 45 majority-black high schools. So last week the students protested, sitting down in the hallway outside the library, refusing to go to class and instead, read books. Call it a “read-in.”
The library is located at the DuSable High School campus on Chicago’s South Side, which houses several high schools — and serves both the Daniel Hale Williams Prep and the Bronzeville Scholastic Institute. Sayigh has been heading the library for more than a dozen years, but she just learned that her position was being cut. Why? A school system spokesperson said that every year the district adjusts school funding levels at this time based on enrollment, and that the position was cut because of lower-than-expected enrollment. The district at the moment has a $1.1 billion structural deficit and a $500 million functional deficit for this school year. The spokesperson said in an email:
“While we would love to see skilled librarians at every school, the simple fact of our massive budget crisis puts that goal out of reach — especially as we try to keep teachers in classrooms. CPS is facing a $1.1 billion budget crisis, and we’re working with our state leaders to end an unfair funding system that gives some of the poorest children in the state only $3 for every $4 children in other districts receive. In fact, Chicago students are 20 percent of the state’s enrollment but receive only 15 percent of the state’s education funding. Until we fix that unfair system, we’ll do everything we can to protect our classrooms.”
School officials at Daniel Hale Williams and Bronzeville were not available to discuss the situation. Students were told that the library might stay open and staffed with volunteers, but such arrangements at other Chicago high schools that lost their librarian were not especially successful.
According to the Chicago Teachers Union, the city has 46 high schools with a majority African American student population. With the loss of full-time librarian Sayigh, that leaves only two. The union also says that all high schools across the school district have been losing librarians; in 2012, 67 out of 97 high schools had one but by this year, the proportion reversed, and now only a third of all high schools do.
Sayigh was quoted by a union release as saying:
Since 1936, DuSable has always had a librarian and during most of the time, more than one. This historic black school is the alma mater of Harold Washington, Nat King Cole, Ella Jenkins, Timuel Black and many, many others. The library in this school always has given a sense of community to the building and it still does today. When you remove a librarian, you remove an entire service and take something essential away from the whole building. At my school, it’s connected to the sense of the greater community.
A story in the Chicago Sun Times quoted students lamenting the loss of Sayigh:
Dion Warr, an 18-year-old senior at BSI, couldn’t believe what would happen to the “sanctuary” where she began seeking refuge as a freshman and stuck around for after-school programs: book club, improv classes with Second City.
Warr, who should have been in an English class, hugged Sayigh, who gave her a tissue.
“This is where I went when everybody else had the cliques and the groups,” Warr said. “Ms. Sayigh means so much to us. She’s my at-school mom. This library has been a foundation for kids who are huge readers.”
From the Chicago Teachers Union:
Figure 1. In 2012, majority black schools represented a little over 40% of schools staffed with librarians, a little less than their proportion across all schools, which was 47% in 2012:
Figure 2. In 2015, schools that were majority black represented just 25 percent of schools that had a certified librarian on staff.
Figure 3. CPS High Schools have a had a steep decline in librarians, but especially at schools with a majority African American student population:
Figure 4. There are large pockets throughout Chicago lacking a high school with a staffed librarian, but the need is most dire in areas such as Englewood and on the West Side: