We Need You! Forming Effective Advocacy Coalitions

Advocacy is about enlisting others to take up a shared cause. Finding points of connection between possible advocates and the goal of an appeal is a primary task of those who spearhead advocacy efforts. With only thirteen state-certified school librarians serving eighty-nine schools and programs in Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) in the 2018–2019 school year, a small group of committed advocates began a school librarian restoration project. We set out to restore professional positions, some of which had been cut fifteen years earlier.

As one of the librarians who had been cut to half time in 2003, I have been impatiently waiting for the opportune time to spearhead this effort. In this article, I share how our advocacy team built support with the district's superintendent, school board members, and the community at-large in order to move this advocacy appeal forward. Through strategic planning and action as well as serendipity, the lessons learned from the TUSD School Librarian Restoration Project offer field-tested guidelines that can be applied in your school library advocacy appeal.

Literacy Ecosystem

The literacy ecosystem includes public, school, academic, and special libraries. Each serves a unique function in our literacy and learning communities. "Libraries constitute an ecology of educational, research, and community services. In this environment of inter­dependency, we, as a family of libraries, must embrace advocacy for school libraries as foundational to the success of our collective work for students who love to read, as we prepare them for college, career, and life" (Neal 2018). When any component in the literacy ecosystem is weak, the entire system is threatened.

In Arizona, school libraries and librarians are a weak link in the literacy ecosystem. School librarians have the potential to influence the literacy lives of every student, educator, and family in their schools 180 days per year. They are critical to sustaining a strong literacy community, but they are endangered and in need of community-wide advocacy and support. In order to guide successful advocacy appeals, school librarians must form coalitions with community members and organizations. This requires building relationships and then taking action—together.

Context: A School Library Desert

In Arizona, as in many states across the United States, public schools are starving. The Arizona legislature's support for and investment in charter schools, which syphons off funding from district public schools, has taken its toll. To add insult to injury, open enrollment allows families to cross district boundaries to send their children to more affluent schools. As a result, high-needs, urban districts, like TUSD, are losing enrollment and therefore funding. TUSD educators and advocates joined the nationwide #RedforEd movement in 2018 and secured the governor's promise to increase teacher pay. Still, at the time of this writing, there is no guaranteed source of additional funding for Arizona's public-school educators and long-neglected district needs.

The situation in TUSD, the second largest school district in the state, is indeed dire. Seventy-two percent of district students are from federally identified minor groups; seventy percent of students receive free or reduced lunch. Many schools provide students breakfast, lunch, and supper as well as meals over the summer (http://www.tusd1.org/Departments/Food-Services). Almost all schools have clothing closets. While many charter schools and some neighboring districts refuse to enroll special needs students, TUSD accepts and serves everyone.

Statistically, the literacy needs of students living at or below the poverty line are greater than those of their more affluent peers. Their families often live far from public libraries and lack transportation or time to take advantage of public library services. They also live far from bookstores or other sources of reading materials and may lack Internet access in their homes.

The following table shows the decline from 2003 to 2019 of state-certified school librarian positions in the district.

Table 1: Tucson Unified School District by the Numbers

2002–2003

2018–2019

Number of Students

59,250

45,300

Number of Schools

105

86

Number of State-Certified School Librarians

96

13

School Librarian to Student Ratio

1:617

1:3,484

Data from TUSD


It is clear there is an equity issue in TUSD in terms of access to literacy learning provided by fully resourced school libraries and the expertise of school librarians. It is simply unconscionable that so many students lack access to a school library staffed by a professional librarian.

Beginning the Restoration Project

Between 2003 and 2016, TUSD had a revolving door of administrators in the superintendent's office. During that time, no superintendent or interim superintendent, or coalition of TUSD Governing Board members, for that matter, were inclined to make the case for restoring school librarian positions. In fact, during recession years, positions continued to be cut due to state-level funding reductions and the failure of local bond measures. The lack of leadership from central administration and site-based management further assured the gross inequity that exists today in TUSD schools.

Then, opportunity knocked in March 2017, when Dr. Gabriel Trujillo was hired as TUSD's superintendent. In terms of this advocacy project, his long-time service in public education in Arizona, commitment to serving minority students and families, and his experience as a principal in the Phoenix Union High School District (PUHSD) created the possibility for this effort. In spite of state-level education funding cuts and the recession, PUHSD has never reduced their professional school library staff. Dr. Trujillo came to TUSD with first-hand knowledge of what school librarians contribute to the academic success of students, educators, and schools.

When I met with Dr. Trujillo for the first time in the summer of 2018, I arrived prepared to share research data and the history of outstanding library services in TUSD, especially during the 1990s and early 2000s when district librarians were involved in the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund National Library Power Project. Dr. Trujillo did not need convincing; rather he asked me to help him restore middle school librarian positions. We found common ground in focusing this effort on the district's Middle School Improvement Plans. (While there was no need to conduct market research to begin our project, it was critical that we established shared goals on which to build.)

I immediately put out invitations in Tucson's literacy community to join our advocacy team. I reached out to friends, former school librarians, retired educators, and three literacy organizations in our community. A number of individuals responded. One small literacy organization offered support. Another with a large budget and staff responded that they couldn't get involved in advocacy efforts; the third did not respond to emails or phone calls.

Undaunted, we formed a small but mighty advocacy team and began our work. The infographic captures the public relations communication strategies we used to increase support for our advocacy appeal: We Need You! Building Advocacy Coalitions ( https://my.visme.co/projects/n0vzzjzm-we-need-you)

Members of our team met with individual board members. All were sympathetic to our cause and four of five were consistent supporters throughout the first year. One board member introduced me to the board liaison for the School Community Partnership Council (SCPC). Several members of the advocacy team began attending SCPC meetings, sharing our project, and gaining support. A local television station interviewed the board liaison and me at an SCPC meeting and the media coverage helped spread the word. We also published letters to the editor in the local newspaper and have had two op-eds published during the course of our campaign.

Members of the core advocacy team regularly responded during the Calls to the Audience at the 2018–2019 governing board meetings. People with a variety of roles spoke or submitted letters to be read by others: current TUSD library assistants, former school principals and librarians, parents, and other community members. We will continue to offer these 3-minute statements, which are streamed live and become part of the public record of school board meetings.

A Midpoint in the Project

In July 2019, the TUSD Governing Board approved a budget that included two restored middle school librarian positions. Although this was not the number of positions we had targeted, we considered this a step in the right direction. Since the funds were approved after educators had signed 2019–2020 teaching contracts, the positions were not posted before the start of the academic year. At the time of this writing, Dr. Trujillo, the human resources department, and members of the advocacy team are working together to update the school librarian job description. Our goal is to attract and hire the most qualified librarians who are prepared to serve as literacy and learning leaders from day one on the job.

We are also strategizing the best way to attract candidates and educate principals regarding the roles and responsibilities of today's school librarian leaders. We are committed to reviewing the school library assistant job description and ensuring that site administrators are aware of the distinctions between the librarian's and the assistant's roles and responsibilities. We hope that this education effort will encourage more principals to commit discretionary funds to restoring school librarian positions and retaining library assistants in their vital library management supporting role.

Our advocacy team also recognizes the importance of reciprocity in advocacy efforts. One of our members serves on a district-level curriculum committee that has needed vocal support from the community. Other members of our team have spoken out in favor of the updated curriculum at open meetings as well as at board meetings. Adding our voices of support to other positive change efforts strengthens relationships among members of our team, puts us on the radar of other potential advocates, and stands us in good stead with district leadership as well.

In addition to our goal of expanding membership in our advocacy group, the School Librarian Restoration Project has long-term plans to broaden our impact. The district is in the process of forming a new strategic planning committee. A school board member has recommended to the superintendent that members of our advocacy group serve on that committee. From these seats at this table, we will be able to build more support for a district-wide restoration plan to ensure that all TUSD students have the library services they deserve.

The On-Going Commitment

Restoring school librarian positions in TUSD was not a one-year project; it will likely take five or more years to achieve our district-wide school librarian positions restoration goal. In fall 2019, we are making a concerted effort to increase the number of members on our advocacy team. We are sharing our efforts at our state library association conference. We will continue our Calls to the Audience and meetings with school board members, participation in the SCPC, and reach out for additional support in the community. We expect our advocacy work will be a key part of the American Association of School Librarian's State-Level Leader initiative (http://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2019/05/aasl-launches-school-administrator-collaborative) to support school librarian-focused presentations at Arizona administrators' conferences in 2020–2021.

Similar to other challenges in education, advocates must take a long view and maintain their commitment to what's best for our youth through successes as well as setbacks. We must remain steadfast and enlist the advocacy support of our colleagues within the library profession and the community at-large. "A patron of one library is the potential patron of any other library at a different time of life or location. No library exists independent of the library ecosystem. When we stand together in mutual support using common messaging themes that demonstrate this interconnectedness, every library is stronger" (American Library Association).

As a former TUSD principal noted: "School librarians are the heart of the school. And without a school librarian there is no central focus on literature. There is no support for families, for students, for teachers, for staff, on literature, on professional development, on research" (Godfrey 2014). The School Librarian Restoration Project will continue until every TUSD student, educator, and family has access to a vibrant school library program led by a state-certified school librarian.

Works Cited

American Library Association. "State Ecosystem Initiative." 2017–2020. http://www.ala.org/advocacy/state-ecosystem-initiative

Godfrey, Paula. "Principals Know: School Librarians Are the Heart of the School." YouTube.com. April 4, 2014. https://youtu.be/bihGT7LoBP0

Neal, Jim. "Fight for School Libraries: Student Success Depends on Them." American Libraries Magazine (March 1, 2018). https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2018/03/01/fight-for-school-libraries/

About the Author

Judi Moreillon, MLS, PhD, is a literacies and libraries consultant. She earned her master's in library science and her doctorate in education at the University of Arizona. Judi is a former school librarian who served at all three instructional levels. She taught preservice school librarians for twenty-one years, most recently as an associate professor. Her latest professional book for school librarians and classroom teachers, Maximizing School Librarian Leadership: Building Connections for Learning and Advocacy, was published in 2018 by ALA Editions. Judi's homepage is http://storytrail.com; she tweets @CactusWoman and can be reached at info@storytrail.com.

MLA Citation Moreillon, Judi. "We Need You! Forming Effective Advocacy Coalitions." School Library Connection, February 2020, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2208179.

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