New guide outlines steps for creating well-resourced, thriving school libraries

A new tool kit aims to inspire and guide funders, school districts, community partnerships, and other entities in establishing collaborative efforts to promote reading proficiency and academic success in their community.

Based on the Baltimore Elementary and Middle School Library Project, the tool kit outlines the phases of and key steps (summarized below) for planning similar projects, incorporating examples from the Baltimore effort.

Launched in 2011 by the Weinberg Foundation, Baltimore City Public Schools, and other partners, the Library Project serves over 7,700 students and their families through 17 school libraries. These libraries serve as an important resource for families, helping to meet critical needs such as food and clothing; encouraging adult learning; and providing access to technology for parents’ personal and professional use.

While the tool kit aims to provide guidance on starting similar projects, each community should customize the process to suit its needs.

Explore the complete tool kit.

PHASE 1: ESTABLISHING YOUR PARTNERSHIP

  1. Start with a clear vision to foster productive and focused communication, help attract potential partners to the work, and serve as a guidepost throughout many years of implementation and sustainability.

    Library Project: From the start, the Library Project set out “to transform inner-city school libraries into inspirational spaces in order to impact educational achievement.” Its vision was informed by education professionals, library experts, and foundation leaders, among others; successful library initiatives; pertinent research; and a fundamental belief that all children deserve well-equipped, well-resourced, and well-staffed libraries.

  2. Identify potential partners. A public-philanthropic partnership is at the heart of the Library Project. Cross-sector partnerships can provide opportunities to creatively solve problems by capitalizing on the strengths that each partner brings.

    Library Project: The Library Project started with two core partners: the Weinberg Foundation and Baltimore City Public Schools. Over the years, it has engaged more than 30 community and government partners (e.g., nonprofits that provide literacy programs, food banks, and arts programs) in support of the work.

  3. Define success. Partners must work together to ensure a common understanding of the project and its goals.

    Library Project: The project has consistently approached defining success as a collaborative process. From the beginning, the Weinberg Foundation turned to local leaders for guidance and recommendations, rather than approach the work with a rigid plan. This open, flexible approach has continued over the years.

  4. Solidify funding and fiscal management. It is essential to have an in-depth understanding of the partnership’s financial landscape, which includes available state funding opportunities, the local or district approach to funding capital improvements, and commitments of philanthropic partners.

    Library Project: Because the Weinberg Foundation can contribute up to 30% of the total costs of a capital project, Baltimore City Public Schools agreed to cover the remaining 70% and mainly does so using the Capital Improvement Program, a state allocation system.

  5. Determine equitable criteria for school selection. While a library project cannot address all the deep, systemic inequities facing educational systems, it can serve as a model for equitable investment in schools within an individual community, with selection criteria to that end.

    Library Project: The school district identifies potential Baltimore Library Project schools, considering factors such as neighborhood needs and funding sources.

  6. Formalize the commitment among partners. Making commitments official among partners through written documentation can support continuity when circumstances shift, such as a change in leadership or community economics.

    Library Project: The Library Project uses legally binding memoranda of understanding (MOUs) between the district and the Weinberg Foundation. Individual MOUs are signed with other partners, such as community-based organizations.

  7. Implement governance and accountability structures. While partnership agreements should spell out the specifics of decision-making and management, processes for governance and accountability are necessary to ensure they happen. A system-level governance entity (i.e., advisory board or committee) is responsible for high-level planning and strategy, cultivating project and partner enthusiasm, problem-solving, and sustainability planning. The school-level implementation entity is responsible for the oversight of logistics related to library construction.

    Library Project: The Library Project has an advisory committee and school-based implementation teams. The MOU specified the creation of an advisory committee, which is chaired by the Foundation and includes key representatives from the school system. The implementation teams oversee construction at each school.

  8. Create a sustainability plan. Having a plan to sustain and maintain the strength of existing partnerships and operations, as well as funding and infrastructure, is essential in supporting the successful longevity of a project’s programming.

    Library Project: The Weinberg Foundation provides funding for operations and maintenance for each library as long as the school maintains a salaried librarian position.

PHASE 2: BUILDING YOUR LIBRARY

  1. Form and engage an implementation team. These teams oversee construction at each school and should include representation from the philanthropic partner, the school district central office, the school, the construction team, and the architecture and design firms. Teams should begin meeting regularly during the design phase and continue meeting until construction is completed.

    Library Project: The Library Project formed implementation teams at each school to oversee construction. They were responsible for planning and reviewing construction timelines and architectural plans, and for strategizing when problems arose. While the Weinberg Foundation initially led the meetings, the district ultimately took over this responsibility because of its greater involvement in the construction.

  2. Design the library. Libraries should provide versatile spaces that support a range of learning activities, including class and individual learning, small-group activities, and pleasure reading.

    Library Project: Libraries include a flexible floor plan with separate areas for study, research, instruction, and group discussion, as well as informal reading areas with comfortable seating to encourage independent reading.

  3. Staff the library. Having a full-time librarian in a school library is associated with academic gains. The American Association of School Librarians recommends at least one full-time certified school librarian and one full-time library assistant.

    Library Project: Libraries are staffed by full-time, credentialed librarians, who receive $2,000 annually over four years for professional development. Librarians are supported by part-time library clerks, who assist with managing the collections, checking out books, and technology or instruction.

  4. Select collections and equipment. Library collections must have current and in-depth materials that can support inquiry and exploration activities, represent the school’s learning community, and expose students to the broader and more diverse global community. Collections should be available in different formats including print, audio, digital, and graphic versions. Today’s libraries also require technology to meet students’ needs for digital literacy.

    Library Project: The Weinberg Foundation enabled each school to purchase up to 4,000 new books for the library and three books for each student to take home. In addition, each library receives Google Chromebooks and smart boards. A Parent Corner aims to promote greater parental participation in their children’s education and meet the needs of parents.

PHASE 3: IMPLEMENTING YOUR VISION

  1. Engage in promotional and public relations activities. These can provide an opportunity to recognize partners for their efforts; help gain credibility and support for the project from the wider community; and assist in attracting donors, partners, and volunteers.

    Library Project: Communications and outreach are coordinated by the project manager from the Weinberg Foundation, with support from the Weinberg Foundation’s and City Schools’ communications departments.

  2. Work with community partners. Engaging with the broader community can provide students with access to programs, experiences, and resources that might not typically be available to them.

    Library Project: When considering potential partners, the Weinberg Foundation consults with the district to ensure they would be a good fit and manages the logistics of engagement. Partners have helped meet basic needs (e.g., food, warm clothing, shoes) and provided literacy and enrichment programs.

  3. Provide ongoing maintenance. Deliberate planning for maintenance, with an understanding of what funds the school district can realistically supply, is critically important.

    Library Project: The Weinberg Foundation has a maintenance budget for library upkeep and repairs for up to six years after construction, part of which is used for annual upholstery and carpet cleaning at each library. The Foundation’s project director also does a yearly walkthrough of each space with library staff to determine specific maintenance needs.

  4. Conduct evaluation activities. Establishing an evaluation plan and associated tools at the beginning of the project will allow for addressing process evaluation questions to determine how the project has performed and outcome evaluation questions to determine what difference the project is making for schools, staff, students, and families.

    Library Project: Evaluation activities have included yearly activities during the first three years of the project and a more recent evaluation conducted in 2022.

  5. Support long-term sustainability. Planning for long-term sustainability is one of the greatest challenges and requires solidifying and diversifying funding sources, institutionalizing processes and programs, sharing evidence of benefits, and maintaining ongoing communication.

    Library Project: The Foundation pledged up to six years of operations and maintenance funding for each library and has remained deeply committed to the partnership with each school beyond this time period as needed, recognizing how challenging it would be for the school system to maintain the libraries at their current level of funding.

Explore the complete tool kit.

To learn more about the Library Project’s impact and key components of success, review the findings from a recent third-party evaluation of this effort. For more on the Library Project, visit www.baltimorelibraryproject.org.

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