A small group of Konawaena High School students gathered at Julian Yates Field Tuesday morning for a demonstration that sought to raise awareness about potential cuts made to the school’s library.
Judah Aldorasi, a 17-year-old Konawaena High School senior and demonstration organizer, passed out markers and poster board, encouraging students to make signs sharing their feelings about the situation or in support of its current services and staff. The signs were hung in front of the bleachers before the first bell rang, when some students headed to class. Others vowed to sit in until campus security or administrators appeared, which occurred around 8:30 a.m., ending the short-lived, low-key protest.
“As a student, it takes a lot to stand up for what you believe in, but the student voice on this issue must be heard,” Aldorasi said. “These cuts might not happen until next year. I’m a senior so this won’t affect me, but I’m passionate about saving our library and its full-time staff position. My hope is, by inviting the news media to this protest, it will make parents and others in the community more aware about what’s happening, get concerned and involved to find a solution.”
Tuesday’s demonstrators were concerned about the possible change to the library media specialist position from full time to part time — a proposal they first heard about at the end of last semester. They wanted more clarity about how that reduction would affect library hours and student access to “invaluable” resources and services. They also wanted to know how a part-time position would adequately protect library services and help students. A few worried the library could close or its hours be made inconvenient. However, the group had not yet shared their collective concerns with Principal Shawn Suzuki.
Following the demonstration, Suzuki told West Hawaii Today that he admired the students’ passion about education and their civic engagement. But he wanted to make two things very clear: “The library will remain open and the library media specialist may be reduced to a part-time position.”
Suzuki said he made this recommendation in the proposed budget, which includes possible cuts, for next school year submitted to the state Department of Education. Such budgets are always due in November or December. This gives interested teachers enough time to participate in the transfer period, from February to April.
Suzuki did not know for sure if the library media specialist will indeed be reduced because it depends on the amount of funding the school receives through the Weighted Student Formula. He stressed the recommendation was an attempt to try to maintain and support as many critical school services as possible while also dealing with dwindling funds.
West Hawaii Complex Area Superintendent Art Souza said the Weighted Student Formula is used to determine how much discretionary money each school gets per year. Unfortunately, if enrollment declines, such as the case at Konawaena High, so does funding. Because of lack of funding and tighter budgets over the past several years, many public schools throughout the state have made difficult decisions, including cutting staff or programs. He added, “No cut is easy.”
In the past three years, Souza estimated there have been at least four or five librarian cuts at West Hawaii schools. He commended Suzuki’s attempt in trying to preserve a level of library services. He said Konawaena High should have a better idea of its budget by May, the end of Hawaii’s legislative processes.
In the meantime, Souza recommended that students and the public discuss their concerns with school leaders and work to find “creative solutions” that ensure wanted services remain, including what could potentially be done without a full-time librarian. He said this may also be reconsidering what a library is and the duties of those who use it, as well as how to best use new technologies.
Tuesday’s demonstrators said they understand that public schools statewide are dealing with difficult budget constraints, but they believe cuts could be made elsewhere at their school and had not settled on exactly where. They described their library as “a second home” and “a highly used, very popular focal point of the school.” The demonstrators also said they’re not alone in their views and showed a petition signed by hundreds of students. They plan to present copies of that petition to Suzuki, the state DOE and local lawmakers.
Beyond the books and computers, the students said the library is a hub that helps connect people and makes a significant difference in student learning outcomes. Numerous studies have shown students with full access to a librarian and library services on a regular basis have significant achievement gains over the long run, they said.
At the heart of Konawaena High’s library is Woody Plaut, a library media specialist who has worked at the school for 10 years. Demonstrators described Plaut as “amazing,” “forward-thinking,” “talented” and a “caring teacher” who is determined to help students achieve their learning goals and increase their level of success.
Devanta Derbigny said he was able to bring his GPA up from a 1.0 to a 4.0 because of daily access to key library resources, including Plaut. The 17-year-old Konawaena High senior prefers to get his school work done in the library. He also has noticed many students coming to the library because they don’t have a computer at home and because they feel comfortable getting help there.
Aldorasi said they did not tell Plaut of their demonstration plans, but hoped “he would be honored that we’re fighting so hard for him and the library.”
Plaut was surprised and touched by the students’ actions. He said the demonstration showed how much they valued the library that he’s invested so much of his heart and soul creating. He was also proud of their willingness to stand up for what they believe in and how they displayed good citizenship.
While he understands why the students are upset, Plaut also understands Suzuki’s predicament. He added, “I support the principal, but don’t agree with the decision.”
During his tenure, Plaut has won more than a quarter-million dollars in grants for the school, resulting in a top-to-bottom renovation of the library, including the creation of a 65-computer laboratory. He also built “a world-class collection of literature” and The Konawaena Virtual Library, a recognized academic and cultural portal.
Plaut is more than a librarian. He teaches lessons in website evaluation and research, as well as how to use technology effectively and ethically. As a member of the instructional support team that’s responsible for coordinating aspects of school operations, he prepares books for circulation and checkout; does bookkeeping and library scheduling; offers student support; sources materials for classroom use and for purchase; administers tests; covers for absent teachers; and does eighth-grade orientation. His job and duties also include being a student and teacher mentor, information specialist, college advisory specialist, counselor and community networker.
To demonstrators like Aldorasi, “He’s an essential partner in education, and it’s unacceptable to not have full-time access to him or other librarians.”