IF Matters: Intellectual Freedom @ your library®
School Library Monthly/Volume XXVII, Number 4/January 2011
Serving Homeless Children in the School Library, Part 2
by Helen R. Adams
A former school librarian, Helen Adams is an online instructor for Mansfield University. She is chairperson of the AASL Intellectual Freedom Committee and author of Ensuring Intellectual Freedom and Access to Information in the School Library Media Program (Libraries Unlimited, 2008). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
"I know I can speak for all our school librarians. Literacy is our business. We do not limit access to materials or checkouts."
Since the economic downturn began, homelessness is occurring more frequently from metropolitan areas to suburbs to rural localities to small towns and cities across America. In December 2008, a company in Wisconsin closed its plant. Approximately 4,000 General Motors and satellite business employees lost their jobs in Janesville, Wisconsin; and the economic ripple in the community of 60,000 created financial hardship for many families (http://www.granta.com/Online-Only/Janesville-Wisconsin). As a result, the School District of Janesville is serving an increasing population of students who are homeless. The eight-minute video "Homeless" tells their story (http://www.dpi.state.wi.us/homeless/ppt/jsd_proj_hope.mht).
School Policies and Homeless Students
According to Ann Forbeck, a homeless liaison for the School District of Janesville,
Many students in poverty and homeless students especially, live in chaos and focus only on surviving from day to day. In that environment, it is very difficult for families to keep track of important papers, like birth certificates and school records. It is rarely on the radar for these families to take care of getting library books back to school on time, if at all.
I have run into situations where students were denied access to school records or permission to graduate due to an unpaid fee for a missing book [NOT in Janesville]. These are the kind of policies that cause homeless students to give up on their education. It is also illegal to discriminate against students who are homeless . I have worked with high school students who left school books in unsafe places where they had stayed temporarily, and they have been afraid to go back to those residences to retrieve the books. It is very important that school libraries have policies that allow for students to have access to the materials without penalizing them for situations that are beyond their control (Forbeck 2010).
"Economic Barriers to Information Access: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights" states, "All library policies and procedures, particularly those involving fines, fees, or other user charges, should be scrutinized for potential barriers to access" (http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/economicbarriers.cfm). School librarians must balance their fiduciary responsibility to maintain a collection with open access for all students.
School District Efforts
Janesville school librarians have developed policies that fulfill Library Bill of Rights principles and consider homeless students’ needs. Kathy Boguszewski, Janesville Library Media and Instructional Technology Coordinator, affirmed,
We encourage all children to check out books. We want the children to become better readers, and to become better readers they need to read. The key is getting books in the hands of students. If items do not come back, due to many circumstances, they [librarians] do what they can to encourage the students to return materials. But what does not come back is just the cost of doing business. I know I can speak for all our school librarians. Literacy is our business. We do not limit access to materials or checkouts. (Boguszewski 12 August 2010; 9 August 2010).
To enable some students to complete homework, the school district placed computers and printers in two homeless shelters (Forbeck 2010). Boguszewski agrees this action is helpful but asserts, "I would like to see all of our school libraries open beyond school hours. The homeless shelters are not an ideal learning environment. Our libraries are" (Boguszewski, 12 August 2010; 9 August 2010).
Practical Strategies for School Librarians
School libraries have traditionally been safe havens for at-risk students and can also make a difference in the lives of students who are homeless. According to Mary Maronek, education consultant for the Wisconsin Education for Homeless Children and Youth program, "School librarians or any school staff should not assume, because of age or grade level, the understanding a student may have on any subject. Nor should they assume that a child can take homework home, and s/he has the resources to complete school assignments" (Maronek 2010).
Practical strategies school librarians can use to help homeless students include:
- Welcome new students and provide a library map, brochure describing library usage policies, a brief tour, and orientation to library resources.
- Assign a library buddy for elementary students.
- Stock basic school supplies commonly needed to complete assignments.
- Set clear, consistent rules that provide structure to library use.
(adapted from "How Teachers Can Help Homeless Students": Wisconsin 2009).
- Provide individual support and frequent encouragement to students as they seek resources and work on assignments.
- Provide the one-on-one attention homeless students often desire (Maronek 2010).
- Respect students’ privacy in library usage and personal confidences.
- Help students plan where library books can be stored safely, and provide a calendar showing the day library books are due (Forbeck 2010).
- Seek ways to give students books to keep. Janesville elementary school librarian Karen Forst recounts, "I give away books nearly every week. After story time, I choose two students to answer story-related comprehension questions, and they are allowed to choose a book to keep ('forever and ever!' as some little ones say). I also post trivia questions with books as the prize and ask third to fifth graders Dewey questions with book rewards" (Forst 2010).
- Seek alternate ways to replace lost/damaged books such as asking a local service organization to establish a small fund for that purpose or offering students the option to work in the library to pay for a fine or book replacement (Adams 2008, 69).
- Select books on poverty and homelessness to enable homeless students to see themselves in the collection and their housed peers to learn about those conditions.
- Share lesson plans and resources with teachers about students living in poverty and experiencing homelessness.
Librarianship with Compassion
Providing library resources and service to students who are homeless is a mix of applying professional ethics, recognizing students' First Amendment right to receive information in a school library, and meeting a legal requirement to provide an education equal to that of housed students. Ann Forbeck says it best when she states, "There are no easy answers to helping homeless students succeed in school. However, it is possible to change punitive policies regarding lost and late books with compassion for the very difficult lives of students who are homeless or living in poverty" (Forbeck 2010). So, to contribute to this effort, school librarians can start by reviewing and fine-tuning library policies. They can then greet homeless students in the school library with a friendly smile, they can offer a safe space with resources, and they can establish flexible policies.
Resources on Homelessness
National Coalition for the Homeless: Fact Sheets & Lesson Plans. http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/index.html
Institute for Children & Poverty: Quick Facts & Reports. http://www.icpny.org/
National Center for Homeless Education: Issues Briefs. http://www.seirtec.org/nche/
National Center for Children in Poverty: Fact Sheets. http://www.nccp.org/
Adams, Helen R. Ensuring Intellectual Freedom and Access to Information in the School Library Media Program. Libraries Unlimited, 2008.
American Library Association. "Economic Barriers to information Access: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights." http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/economicbarriers.cfm (accessed October 5, 2010).
Boguszewski, Kathy. Email to author, 12 August 010/to Nancy Anderson, 9 August 2010.
Forbeck, Ann. Email to Kathy Boguszewski, 16 August 2010.
Forst, Karen. Email to Nancy Anderson, 22 August 2010.
Greenhouse, Steven. "Janesville, Wisconsin." January 8, 2010. http://www.granta.com/Online-Only/Janesville-Wisconsin/ (accessed October 5, 2010).
Maronek, Mary. Email interview with author, 9-10 August 2010.
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. "How Teachers Can Help Homeless Students." October 2009. http://dpi.wi.gov/homeless/pdf/teach_help_hmls_stud.pdf (accessed October 5, 2010).