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This educator is reimagining Clemente’s school library

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Andy Townhouse arrived at Roberto Clemente Community Academy on Chicago’s West Side to find the school library dusty shelves and a terribly outdated collection.

Before she took on Townhouse, the school had been without a librarian for more than a decade.

She decided to revamp the library’s checkout system and its offerings — lots of Scientology and eating disorders, not much exciting fiction. But she’s also completely reimagined the space for the post-pandemic era, adding 3D printers, yoga classes, a knitting club, tutoring and a wellness herbal corner — a gathering place where students can set the agenda, connect with each other and learn more about themselves.

Townhouse is a passionate advocate for school libraries at a time when Chicago and districts across the country are cutting back. School librarians have become peculiar endangered species above the last decade. The layoffs of the couple of Chicago Public Schools Librarians made headlines last spring.

Chalkbeat spoke with Townhouse about her work reimagining Clemente Library, the reaction of her students, and the role of school librarians in pandemic recovery.

What drew you to a career as a school librarian?

I am drawn to how librarians are architects of relationships. I enjoy working with my colleagues, community members, sports teams, local authors, businesses, museums, and any other organization that wants to be there for our children.

I enjoy being a connector of free resources because, at the end of the day, I want those resources to help people develop their lives, teaching practice, or research. I’m also a graphic novel connoisseur, and I really enjoy sharing my reading identity with high school students.

The tradition of the “shhh-librarian” is long over. We are in the community, meeting people and looking for the best way to be a thought partner.

When you started at Clemente High School last year, you were the school’s first librarian in 13 years. What was on your to-do list at the beginning?

The day I was hired, a ceiling pipe burst and there were fans everywhere to dry out the carpet. The first thing I saw when I walked in was about 300 Church of Scientology books.

Weeding became my priority. I had mostly non-fiction, which was outdated. It went beyond “Pluto is a planet.” I had racist books, books that perpetuated stereotypes, books that made fun of children with disabilities, and about three bookshelves devoted solely to eating disorders.

The world has changed four times since the library was last weeded, and in the library world we call that “spoiled milk.” I had an “exhausted collection” because there was no one there to support something that was really living, breathing.

I also learned that all the books are checked out on an “honor system” which isn’t really a system at all. Students can now check out books at the checkout station, save, search for print versions of books, or even pick up e-books and read them instantly.

I took surveys at lunch, in the hallways, in the lobby—anywhere I could find kids to tell me they loved reading because that was their place now. The new books were to become a confirmed mirror reflecting their realities of life. This year I managed to order 900 brand new books.

What are your plans for reimagining Clemente Library to meet the needs of today’s students?

We recently received two grants for the beginning of the year. Makers4Change recently sent our very first 3D printer to the library and I have another one on the way for the new 3D printing club.

I am also in the process of purchasing several sewing machines, dress forms, fabric, knitting needles, yarn, embroidery thread and a hoop. I recently bought a Cricut cutting machine. Our kids will be able to cut out vinyl stickers for their water bottles or punch out memes with our button maker.

I am turning some areas of the library into makerspaces where our students will now be able to solve real-world problems with their own hands.

Last year we were given two hydroponic towers. One grant will help us restock much-needed nutrients and seed pods, tools, herb transport tubs, and a micro-collection of gardening instructions. I look forward to meeting our garden club to taste pesto and chimichurri with herbs grown in our wellness corner.

Over the summer, I earned my 200-hour yoga teacher certification. I can’t wait to give our kids yoga after school as well as mindful meditation sessions during lunch.

How do you see your role and that of other school librarians in helping students recover from the pandemic?

The social disorder of the pandemic was felt by everyone. Our children, who have not seen each other for almost two years, suffered the most. During this time, school librarians were so accommodating, delivering books to families after hours and interviewing students and advising readers.

Staying connected is not something that can be replicated on Zoom, and our kids really lost how to work together, how to feel together, and process their emotions together. The library remains and always will be a common space. School librarians, who are community builders at heart, help children feel their way back into the world because we welcome everyone back into this shared space.

What feedback have you received from students about your work so far?

Students love being in the library during lunch because for some, the dining room is just sensory overload. This year, along with our Head of English Studies, the library has started a thriving fifth grade lunchtime tutoring program. Students take responsibility for their own learning during this time, and they bring their homework, study skills questions, and their friends with them.

This summer, the Chicago Public Libraries launched a part-time paid internship program for high school students 16 and older. For some of the students, I’m the first librarian they’ve ever met since they didn’t have a library in elementary school. Students saw a career path for their lives that was not there before. When some of them got internships in their neighboring department, I cried during my lunch break.

In Chicago and other urban areas, a growing number of schools do not have librarians. What is prolapse?

I’m just one of There are 80 librarians left in the Central Library out of 600 schools. It saddens me because the people who make the decision to close school libraries will not accept it for the sake of their children. When you close libraries, cut funding, and drive librarians out of their spaces, you are missing an opportunity to make your school community cohesive. Children are left to nurture their own readers and check out books—if at all—without any guidance, and the collection goes completely unnoticed.

Schools that invest in stocking their school library see strong academic, social, and emotional returns for the entire student community. If schools are interested in rebuilding their library, they can contact the CPS Libraries team at library@cps.edu.

Mila Kumpilova is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Mila at mkoumpilova@chalkbeat.org.

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