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Commentary: When our students are living in a book desert

Ellie Herman | February 18, 2014

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imgres-1He was beefy and laconic, rumored to be gang-affiliated. Kids whispered that he stood outside of school in the early mornings selling weed, though we could never catch him at it.

He was also brilliant. If you define “intellectual” as a person who takes delight in the process of abstract thinking, Xavier was one of the most purely intellectual young person I’ve ever met. Faced with a complex question that would leave other kids stumped or bored, he would stare at the ceiling, a slow grin moving over his face as he contemplated the various possible answers he could give. Watching Xavier think was like watching him listen to music only he could hear.

Despite his brilliance, he did homework only sporadically, was absent a great deal of the time and was barely passing his classes. I met Xavier my first year teaching in South L.A. and, like many new teachers, was determined that I would be the one to reach him. The day he approached me after class to ask for a reading list, my heart leapt. He wanted to read more, but he had no books in his home. His parents, who started working as children and did not have much education, worked 12-hour shifts at factory jobs. But Xavier wanted a different life; he wanted to be a doctor. He wanted to write about his experiences. What should he read?

I compiled a list of my favorite books, making sure to include teen favorites, books about the medical profession and topics that might speak to a kid growing up in a high-poverty neighborhood. When I gave him the list, he contemplated it with his usual care, made a small check mark next to the books that looked interesting, and looked up. “Where can I get them?” he asked.

And that’s where our story stalls out. Because that’s when I realized that Xavier was living in a book desert.

Our school, like many schools in low-income neighborhoods in L.A., did not have a library. Except for small collections of favorites in the classrooms of English teachers, we had nothing to offer any student who wanted to read something other than the required class book. No place to browse, no place to touch books, no place to sit quietly and get lost in words the way I had as a kid, when I’d lie around reading until I was half-blind and nearly delirious from a day spent happily rambling around someone else’s imagination. And if Xavier couldn’t find books at school or at home, where could he read?

There are no bookstores in South Los Angeles. The few public library branches are tiny and far-flung. None is open on Sunday, and since Xavier worked on Saturday, he could only have gone during evening hours, which was also difficult for him because he babysat younger siblings and could not afford the bus fare to take them all even if his mother would have allowed it, which she wouldn’t because the streets were dangerous after dark.

All over the United States, we are demanding that our students have equal access to education and literacy. To be able to read is at the heart of this demand. But students will never achieve fluency in reading if they have no access to books other than the school’s required reading, on which they are tested, grilled, graded and required to write essays.

For years, school libraries filled this gap. But here in L.A., they have all but vanished. After the devastating funding cuts of the last few years, LAUSD schools have only 98 librarians left across 1,309 schools. Eighty-three percent of LAUSD middle schools don’t have a librarian and are prohibited from keeping the library open with volunteers. At charter schools, the problem is even more severe; for a variety of reasons having to do with limited facilities and massive funding cuts, most charter schools aren’t able to have libraries at all.

Many people believe we should hold off on funding school libraries because e-readers are going to replace physical books. But even if students in low-income communities all had tablets, lack of internet access makes reading outside of school impossible. And it is by no means clear that physical books are going to disappear any time soon. Right now, for our students in poverty, we offer access to neither books nor e-readers that can function outside of the classroom.

Instead, we spend and spend on new techniques to bring students up to grade level when they come into 9th grade reading at a 3rd grade level. We crack down on teachers, pouring money into byzantine, unsustainable evaluation systems to make sure they push their students every second to make up for all the books they didn’t read because they didn’t have any. We pour billions into new testing to show us what we already know: our students do not read very well.

But why should they want to read when we do everything in our power to devalue the act of reading and to remove or shut down places to read from low-income communities? What’s the real message here? Our students may not have high reading levels, but they’re plenty smart. They get the message loud and clear. Reading is for kids in Beverly Hills, in South Pasadena, at Harvard-Westlake. It’s not something we actually want them to do, and it certainly isn’t something we want them to enjoy.

All those years ago, I ended up buying Xavier a couple of books, which is what most teachers do. But I couldn’t give him a quiet place to read or browse or feel like he belonged in the world of reading. All across Los Angeles, our schools in underserved areas are full of students like Xavier who long to read and be part of an intellectual life but have no access to it. For our students growing up in book deserts, what are we doing to provide equal access to reading? How about if we start by demanding that every school in a book desert has a library?

Ellie Herman is a guest commentator. Read more of her thoughts at Gatsby in LA.


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