This editorial by me appeared June 13 in the North Bay Nipissing News.
A few short weeks ago, I was part of an awesome event. For three amazing days, eight other childrens’ authors from across Canada and I met thousands of Near North public school children in a national celebration of reading and writing called The Forest of Reading. With fanfare normally reserved for victorious sports heroes and visiting astronauts, for three consecutive days the authors were marched into the centre of an arena to the thundering applause from students representing all 35 elementary schools in the Near North District School Board system. Each day, Near North students were given the chance to enjoy a presentation from some of the best childrens’ writers in Canada and then to ask questions about how books are written. There was a book fair and writing related games.
One of the most impressive moments of the festival was when Janice Reynolds, the Near North District School Board teacher librarian, asked all the Top Ten Readers to stand up. Top Ten Readers are students who managed to read at least ten of the books on the Forest of Reading’s recommended book list. The Top Ten Reader program is an initiative unique to the Near North. It was created by Reynolds and her 70 plus volunteers.
Last year, an impressive 200 students stood up when the Top Ten Readers honour roll was announced. This year, more than 400 Near North elementary students qualified. This was beyond impressive. Any parent or teacher knows how challenging it is these days to convince young students that old fashioned books can out-cool their computers and techno-gadgets.
And yet I had a special place in my heart for the many students I met who bluntly told me they had only managed to read one or two books over the year. “I don’t really like reading,” they confessed. I can empathize with them because I have a reading disability. For me, there is no such thing as a pleasure read. The books on my bookshelves are not beloved old friends, they’re bloodied war trophies I struggled through word by word. But while I have never developed a love of reading, I have developed a love of “having read” because long ago a teacher librarian like Janice Reynolds convinced me that the only way to fill that empty void I felt inside me was with a good book.
It’s easy to convince keen readers to read. In the Near North District School Board Janice Reynolds had created an environment where both the pleasure and reluctant readers were flourishing. But now that environment is in serious jeopardy.
Recently Reynolds says Jeff Hewitt, the NNDSB Superintendent of Support Services, informed her that her position as teacher librarian has been made redundant. She is going back to the classroom.
This is not a money saving move. Reynolds is being replaced by not one, but four people. In the absence of a teacher librarian the NNDSB will now have a Principal of Library, Literacy and Math (PLLM) to replace the one they let go about a year ago. Under the PLLM will be a Teacher of Literacy, a Teacher of Math, and a Manager of Library Services whose field of expertise is IT. Not one of them is a trained and experienced Librarian.
Somehow the Near North District School Board expects the Forest of Reading program to continue but as a full-time teacher Janice Reynolds will no longer be able to contribute meaningfully to the outstanding program she created. The three day celebration each May is just the tip of the iceberg that the public sees. Before the festival happens, hundreds of hours have to be devoted to ordering books, training staff, encouraging students, raising funds, rounding up volunteers, booking authors, chartering busses and a thousand other details sorted.
There can be no replacement for the knowledge and contacts Janice Reynolds has built up from her years on the job. To top it off, the existing team of volunteers and school board employees are shocked and demoralized by the loss of Reynolds. “Jan was the glue who held us together,” one board employee told me.
Before writing this editorial I attempted to contact Mr. Jeff Hewitt by phone and email but was told by his Executive Assistant that Mr. Hewitt cannot discuss the matter publicly. The reason given was that because there was only one Teacher Librarian, it would breach her right to confidentiality. To set the record straight, I did not ask to talk about Reynolds. I wanted to know how the NNDSB intends to run a library system in 35 elementary and 7 secondary schools without a teacher librarian.
If you are a parent with a child or children in the Near North District School system you may want to ask that question yourself. Even though the next school year seems far away, the time to act is now. Contact your local school trustee and if you wish you can also cc Mr.Hewitt.