I Love My Librarian Award Winner Kathryn Cole: A Librarian for All Seasons

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by Steve Zalusky

Kathryn Cole, school librarian at Northside Elementary School in Chapel Hill, N.C. has maximized her resources to make her library is not only available to all students, but that those students make the most of their educational opportunities.

According to her nominator for the award, Nancy Zeman, Cole “helps all students in this diversely populated school build literate lives” by creating opportunities for them to identify as readers, encouraging curiosity and exploration through literature and fostering positive relationships with the community.

She has especially distinguished herself in her work with underserved students within the school, making sure all students have equal access.  Her dedication to that mission is evident in her summer reading program. She has worked diligently to combat the summer learning loss known as “the summer slide.”

She has enlisted all her creative resources in pursuing that battle. In order to check on whether her students were using the local public library during that time, she gained access to local public library data through public library staff. In the process, she learned that most of the underserved students enrolled in her elementary school were not participating in the public library’s summer reading program.

She responded by helping to create a program of her own, using a grant and partnering with the public library to coordinate a joint Summer Reading Program.  She opened the school library over the summer break to offer the same kind of reading program children would receive at the public library.  

But she did more than helped found it - she relentlessly promoted it, collaborating with other school staff to host a Family Literacy Night before the end of school, during which families were invited to sign up for summer reading and, with the cooperation of the public librarian, issued library cards to families that did not have one.

In addition, she made the summer program more attractive by contracting with local performers, including storytellers and hip-hop dancers, to perform at the media center, holding movie days, replete with popcorn, and making available the MakerSpace and Wii gaming systems.

She also made sure the children could get to the program.

Zeman said the Chapel Hill area has a large and recent population of Burmese and Karen refugees that have moved to the area.  “She found that one family comprised of four children without access to a car or an easily accessible way to get to the public library came to the school library every day,” she said.

She added, “Ms. Cole’s summer library program filled a void for families who traditionally have not been able to participate in the typical summer reading program and has helped extend literacy outreach in the community that our local public library is trying to reach.  Through this program, children were able to use the public library’s reading log and receive the same access to reading incentives as other children who are participating in the public library’s summer reading program.”

The effort also involved local businesses, since Cole was able to offer incentives to the students, including tickets to the local planetarium, bookstore gift cards and coupons to local restaurants.

Cole’s work battling the summer slide is an extension of her dedication during the school year to deliver services to her students, particularly those who are disadvantaged.  More than half of the student population at Northside consists of minority students, with more than 36 percent receiving free-or-reduced lunch benefits.

Cole used the school population data to make sure the books in the collection told stories that would reflect the experiences of the students, while also making sure that alternate viewpoints and experiences from various cultures and lifestyles were represented.

“She continues to work diligently to make sure children can identify with characters in stories and can look at illustrations of characters that ‘look like me’ without being steeped in historical context,” Zeman said. “She specifically looks for ways to make it possible for marginalized populations to see themselves in the books they read and stretch themselves beyond opportunities they have been given.”

Cole also teams up with other schools and libraries around the world—using such tools as Skype—to broaden her students’ awareness of cultural similarities and differences.  Cole created a Guided Reading Bookroom that would serve as a resource for teachers on a wide range of topics aimed at different reading levels.  “(B)y having the materials available in sets that could be checked out and shared, each teacher now had basically all the books she/he needed.”

In addition, Cole devotes herself to making sure that Northside staff understands “the critical role the library plays to equalize the playing field in education and how important it is that all children across the school have access to the library and its resources at point of need.”

She promotes and fosters a love of literacy, sharing school-wide circulation and library usage data to illustrate the importance of library use. She also makes sure that each month, there is at least one activity around literacy and the library. That includes the annual Book Pumpkin contest for which students design pumpkins based on favorite book characters.

She runs a book March Madness school wide competition, and helps coordinate the African American Read-in in February.

During the school PTA’s largest fundraiser, the Read-a-Thon, she transforms the school library to fit the year’s theme. She also encourages students to identify book nooks in the media center and emphasizes the importance of finding quiet reading places in the home.

And she has reached out to the community to attract guest readers from all walks of life, including local police officers, firemen, college athletes, school board members and authors.

When interviewed upon receiving her award, Cole said her favorite part of the job, she said, “the kids are what it’s all about. Just being able to help kids have a voice, give them tools to make them feel empowered, know that they have a space where they can let their curiosities run wild, to me that’s what school librarianship is about, (it) is equaling the playing field for all of our students.”

She said the library is “the heart of the school. Every school library should be the hub of any school. What you find in a school library are the best parts of any educational environment.”

The I Love My Librarian Award is sponsored by Carnegie Corporation of New York, The New York Times, and the New York Public Library. The award is administered by the American Library Association.

Nominations for the 2017 I Love My Librarian Award are open through September 18. Nominate your librarian.

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