LSU Students Travel to Recovery School District to Build Library


Starting a school without a library would be like racing a car without wheels. Access to books is a cornerstone of reading development—a cornerstone that many recovering schools in New Orleans had no choice but to do without. In fact, public libraries were not even accessible or open for many communities in the torn city.

When Abramson Science and Technology Charter School opened in August 2007 they did not have electricity, much less a library. Still running on generators late into the fall of 2007, stacked bookshelves were a wish away from a school contained in temporary trailers and surrounded by demolished, condemned buildings.

Television and radio reports have counted the number of missing and displaced persons, discussed the bureaucratic strain on the system due to missing documents, and even lamented the months of missed school days and the catch-up games many students are now playing. One key component missing in that discussion is the lack of access to books.

“The research is undeniable,” said College of Education Assistant Professor Margaret-Mary Sulentic Dowell. “Students who read regularly perform better all around. The College of Education and departmental colleagues saw an absolute need here and immediately began collecting books to respond.

“Current research estimates the national ratio of about 22 books to one child; last fall in New Orleans East, that ratio was zero books per child,” remarked Dowell.

Since then, Dowell and her colleagues have collected more than 4,000 books from all over the country and used the time-consuming act of sorting books by grade levels as a learning experience. On April 7, LSU students and two of their professors will deliver 70 more boxes of new or gently used books.

“Our class discussion of the books we collected went far beyond just the question of ‘Is this age appropriate?’ We discussed books about religion, firearms, war, and weaponry, even the history of gangs,” said Dowell. “Cataloging and transporting books for Abramson was and continues to be a task. But, it also creates the infamous ‘teachable moment’ for our university students while providing a valuable service to a community in need.”

The students were not the only people at Abramson in need of resources. Dowell’s colleague, College of Education Assistant Professor Jennifer Jolly, enlisted her professional network of editor-colleagues to beef up the teachers’ professional development library as well.

“Getting books into the classroom is a start. Working with teachers to integrate reading into all aspects of learning is the ultimate goal,” added Jolly, a former middle school teacher with research interests in teacher preparation, learning theory, and gifted education.

Learning theory translates not only to teachers in the field but also to up-and-coming teachers, namely the students currently enrolled in the College of Education’s rigorous teacher preparation program accredited through the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). The success of many teachers weighs on their pre-service experience. LSU has a long history of teacher preparation and a proud tradition of promoting academic service learning.

During the fall 2007 and spring 2008 semesters, the College of Education course EDCI 3200 – a six-hour language arts course – required students to create lists of preferred books for the project Web site, sort, and deliver books to Abramson. School faculty then reviewed the delivered books to ensure the books are not only interesting but also appropriate for the grade levels.

Through their work and involvement, students expanded their cultural horizons and frames of reference while strengthening their preparation for teaching in one of the most challenging urban environments in the nation. The research collected from the course has strong implications for the nation’s many children living in poverty without access to books.

“While Abramson is unique, as are most school sites in the greater New Orleans metroplex, the school mirrors challenges in other large urban districts states away from the Recovery School District,” said Dowell.

Formed in 2003, the State of Louisiana created the Recovery School District to address the challenges of the lowest-performing schools – challenges multiplied by structural damage and population flux from Hurricane Katrina or from the corruption that has plagued the New Orleans area for longer than the flooding.

By the end of 2007, approximately 53 public schools fell under the administration of the state’s Recovery School District. Improvement in all-around performance will be the key to evaluating schools in the Recovery School District.

“Access to literature in classroom libraries not only correlates with higher all-around academic achievement, but it motivates children to read, it motivates them to learn,” said Dowell.

When I came to the classroom, the students exceeded my expectations,” said Abramson English Language Arts Teacher Pamela Blanchard who uses a spiral notebook for students to checkout classroom books to read at home.

“My notebook is already full. My students watch the shelves for upcoming titles to be returned. They recommend books to each other. It’s very uplifting to see such a community of young readers.”

In one stranger-than-fiction twist of fate, Blanchard was a former student of Dowell’s when both lived in Mississippi.

“It’s not too often that you get to observe a former pre-service teacher imbedding a concept you taught them in action,” stated Dowell, “and watching Pamela teach from a literacy perspective and supervising my current education majors interacting with children is one of the most gratifying aspects of my job.”

Through her close-knit relationship with Blanchard and other Abramson teachers, Dowell views New Orleans as a laboratory for invention and a radical experiment in educational reform. After a March 2008 visit by President George W. Bush, National Public Radio coined the area “a testing ground for the independent-school movement.”

The variables in that experiment, explained Dowell, consist of a completely new student body, a fresh crop of teachers, and the unique situation of being unable to cross-reference data or analyze year-to-year testing comparisons.

While educators and politicians may debate the fate of that testing ground, common sense argues that there is no need to test the value of reading on academic performance or the necessity of providing the nation’s children with access to books.

Angela Owings Broussard | LSU Office of Public Affairs
Spring 2008