“Budget cuts” have become a familiar refrain from administrators and faculty of the Los Angeles Unified School District over the last several years.

Schools throughout the district have suffered the loss of art and music teachers as well as librarians due to the school district’s inability to close an estimated $408 million deficit for 2011-12. And that has resulted in some school libraries opening only part of the time, and in some cases remaining closed until recently.

Until this month, students at Marina Del Rey Middle School in Del Rey did not have a librarian or aide for their library. Teachers were required to set aside time during the day to take their class to the library where students could work on computers or read books. Now that the new aide, Thelma Davis, is on campus, the library is open from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., said Marina Del Rey Middle School Principal Miranda Ra’oof.

Mark Twain Middle School in Mar Vista has also lost its librarian, so the school’s administration has devised an ingenious solution: a certificated teacher, Cliff Winnard, opens the facility on a part-time basis and continues to teach.

“We’re trying to accommodate all classes and teachers,” said Mark Twain Principal Rex Patton. “Students across the county have lost valuable library time (due to budget cuts).”

To several parents, the loss of these positions cannot solely be measured in human capital. In some instances, they can see it reflected through their children’s eyes when the absence of a librarian or aide is removed from a student’s life.

Heather Austin has seen it with her son Ethan, a first grader at Grand View Boulevard Elementary School in Mar Vista. The position of the school’s library aide, Sally Carollo, was eliminated due to the district’s budget cuts at the beginning of the school year, and Austin says it has affected her son.

“Ethan really treasured his time in the library and is constantly asking when he will be able to go back,” Austin told The Argonaut. “He really misses Sally, who he bonded with immediately – perhaps because she asked him about and helped him explore topics of specific interest to him.”

Sue Kaplan is a research librarian who is also a classroom volunteer at Westminster Avenue Elementary School in Venice. Kaplan, a Venice resident, is dismayed to hear that school librarians are among the first positions sacrificed at the budget altar.

“I don’t think that libraries are irrelevant,” Kaplan asserted. “Librarians know how to evaluate. They learn where to find information and research and they can assist students with avoiding suspect websites.”

LAUSD spokeswoman Susan Cox wrote in an email response to an inquiry that for fiscal year 2011-12, the school district restored, under agreements with both United Teachers Los Angeles and the California State Employees Association, library aides at middle schools and librarians at senior high schools.

“Elementary schools would not have a library staff unless the school purchased from within their own budget,” Cox wrote.

Linda Salib, whose son attends Marina Del Rey, is one of a small group of parents who complained to The Argonaut about the library closure.

“We have been calling for the accessibility for all students,” Salib said, pointing out that the middle school serves Mar Vista Gardens, a public housing complex where a number of children may not have access to computers at home.

Ra’oof sent a memo to faculty and parents last month stating that the library would be open with a library aide as of Oct. 24 from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. every day, but that did not occur until Nov. 14.

“Ms. Davis had to take some personal time,” the principal explained. “Now our library is open all the time, and in addition to Ms. Davis, we have another teacher helping out as well.”

Karen Wolfe, whose son is in the seventh grade at Marina Del Rey, said in an interview the week before Davis arrived at the middle school that having teachers take students in on a restricted basis was not how LAUSD should be serving its students.

“Having a facility that’s available for reservations and escorting them to it is not an open library,” Wolfe asserted. “Having a computer and a printer does not make a library.”

Salib said children need access to research, and the time that the library was closed disproportionately affected lower income children.

Both Wolfe and Salib noted that while students who have computers at home could complete homework, others might not be as fortunate without a computer.

A new report by Duke University scholars Charles T. Clotfelter, Helen F. Ladd and Jacob L. Vigdor corroborated earlier studies that documented distinct racial and socioeconomic gaps in home computer access and use. In “Scaling the Digital Divide: Home Computer Technology and Student Achievement,” the professors wrote, “Using within-student variation in home computer access and across-zip code variation in the timing of the introduction of high-speed Internet service, we also demonstrate that the introduction of home computer technology is associated with modest but statistically significant and persistent negative impacts on student math and reading tests.

“Further evidence suggests that providing basic universal access to home computers and high-speed access could broaden, rather than narrow, math and reading achievement gaps.”

Patton, who brought a language magnet program to his school this year, said he is aware that many families do not have access to computers at home, and when LAUSD reduces the number of librarians and keeps libraries open only part-time, these are the children that suffer.

“There is a great digital divide in this country,” he said.

Austin believes aides like Carollo add a special and intrinsic dimension to a student’s academic life, which can often be hard to measure in a quantitative sense.

“Ethan has a very wide variety of interests and insatiable curiosity, which often leaves him feeling frustrated in the classroom,” she said. “He has a wonderful teacher, but due to class size, time restrictions, and a set curriculum, most (if not all) of in class reading and conversations are assigned, not chosen.

“Library time is like a little oasis of freedom – his very special time for self expression and exploration. That is a loss that I hadn’t considered.”

Austin, who is the president of the Grand View Boulevard Parent Teacher Association, said her son is not the only one who misses Carollo.

“Sally’s absence has been deeply felt by students, families and faculty alike. She was a very special member of the Grand View Community,” she lamented.

Ra’oof said the situation at Marina Del Rey was not ideal, but now students will have someone who is in the library throughout the day.

“This is a very creative situation that we’re using,” she said.

Wolfe used a bit of alliteration to sum up how she describes LAUSD’s approach to eliminating librarian positions: “Locked libraries are for losers.”

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