MLK's dream? | NYC DOE still denying Harlem students access to school librarians

Posted January 12, 2017

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Honor Harlem Students' Legal Right to School Librarians


January 12, 2017

In April 2015, nearly two years ago, the Harlem Council of Elders contacted the New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE) after finding that over 75% of Harlem secondary schools were, collectively, violating the basic educational rights of thousands of Harlem students.  

Commissioner’s Regulation 91.2, part of New York State’s education law, requires that all public secondary schools provide, at the bare minimum, access to a part-time certified school librarian in schools that enroll fewer than 700 students and one full-time librarian in schools that enroll 700 or more students.

On the eve of yet another Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day since this injustice came to light, the NYC DOE, under the leadership of Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Mayor Bill de Blasio, has yet to provide affected Harlem families or the broader Harlem community with even basic information about any plans to hire library media specialists for Harlem schools. Nor has it made any effort to help the public understand what, if any, progress has been made over the past few years.  

Right here, in one of the wealthiest and supposedly most progressive cities in our nation, Harlem children, most of them Black or Brown and living in poverty, are denied the basic opportunity to fully develop their online and print research skills, and to connect with books that nurture their personal development, with expert support from library media specialists.

City and state officials have always had both the power and the legal obligation to fix this problem. Who will stand up for our children? How much longer will they have to wait?



May – NYC DOE testifies at a City Council hearing that over 50% of public middle and high schools are violating state law by not providing access to certified school librarians (also known as “school library media specialists”). DOE officials claim that the system lacks the necessary funding to provide librarians for all students.  

August – The NYC DOE, asks the state for a waiver—permission to disregard the law—regarding New York City students’ access to school librarians.  


September – The state commissioner of education rejects the DOE’s request and instructs it to follow the librarian-related law immediately.  


April – The Harlem Council of Elders, using data from the NYC DOE's website, finds that over 75% of secondary schools in Harlem, most of them serving very high percentages of students of color and those living in poverty, do not provide access to school librarians, far exceeding the citywide average. (In Community School District 5, led by Superintendent Gale Reeves and encompassing most Central Harlem schools, 16 out of 17 secondary schools—almost 95%--are found to be violating the law.)  

June The NYC DOE acknowledges in a letter that the Elders’ findings are correct and claims that it has already begun implementing a plan to recruit more librarians and comply with the law.  

September – The Harlem Council of Elders offers the NYC DOE its support in ensuring that all Harlem students have access to school librarians, and asks the DOE to share its plan to address the problem. The Elders also ask whether the data show that students in some communities—in Harlem, for example—are disproportionately affected by the lack of librarians. The DOE does not respond.  


January – After multiple attempts to communicate with the NYC DOE, the Harlem Council of Elders goes public with its findings and launches a petition calling upon city and state officials to follow the law and honor students’ rights.  

April – The Honor Harlem Students’ Legal Right to School Librarians Coalition, an intergenerational, grassroots group of concerned community-based organizations, led by the Harlem Council of Elders, launches a campaign to raise awareness about this injustice and collect petition signatures. Over three months, representatives of the Harlem Council of Elders; Community Education Council 5 (an official body of elected and appointed parent leaders, plus a student representative); Teachers College, Columbia University’s Black Student Network and the Coalition of Latino/a Scholars; and Total Equity Now gather hundreds of petition signatures outside of affected Harlem schools and distribute information about students’ right to librarians to over 1,000 students, parents, educators, and other community members.  

The parent leaders of Community Education Council 5 (CEC 5), having been denied library-staffing information by the District 5 Superintendent, file a Freedom of Information Law request with the NYC DOE for an update on Central Harlem students’ access to school librarians. The DOE commits to responding in May.  

June – NYC DOE refuses to provide information about the availability of school librarians in District 5, claiming that it would require more than “reasonable effort” to find out how many librarians it employs in the district’s 16 secondary schools. It closes the FOIL appeal.  

July – CEC5 files a Freedom of Information Law appeal, reminding the NYC DOE that, only a year before, it had verified the Harlem Council of Elders’ findings (based on DOE data) about the availability of librarians in District 5 and other Harlem districts.  

August – The NYC DOE responds to say that it is reopening the search for information about access to school librarians in District 5.  

September – The NYC DOE responds to say that it needs more time to figure out how many District 5 schools have librarians.  

Representatives of the Honor Harlem Students’ Legal Right to School Librarians Coalition sit down with District 5 Superintendent Gale Reeves to discuss this issue. She initially attempts to persuade the delegation that certified school librarians are no longer necessary, but ultimately promises to research the availability of librarians in District 5 schools. (However, she tells the delegation that she will not share her findings with the parent leaders of CEC 5 or with any other members of the Coalition.)  

October – The NYC DOE again claims that it needs more time to figure out how many schools in District 5 have librarians.  

November – CEC 5, realizing that the NYC DOE is either unable or unwilling to provide District 5 parents with this basic educational information, files a Freedom of Information law request with the New York State Education Department and attaches the growing stack of correspondence with the NYC DOE.  

The State Education Department responds with a commitment to respond by December 7. (As of today, January 12, it has not responded.)  

December – The NYC DOE yet again claims that it needs more time to find out how many librarians are in District 5 secondary schools. It promises to respond by January 3, 2017. Once again, it fails to follow through.   


January – The lack of transparency and government accountability for such an important and straightforward issue of educational justice continues to undermine community confidence in NYC DOE leadership and in the de Blasio administration’s ability to provide all public-school students even a basic education.      


Thousands of Harlem's young people are still counting on you to demand that state and city officials provide access to school library media specialists. How much longer will they receive less than children in other communities?  

Please do your part by signing and circulating the petition: http://chn.ge/1JvRnaB.  

Thank you,      

The Harlem Council of Elders

The mission of the Harlem Council of Elders, Inc., a volunteer-led, 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1993 by senior citizens with deep roots in the Harlem community, is to foster scholastic achievement among Harlem's youth, and mutual understanding among Harlem’s youth, senior citizens, and community leaders. The Council fulfills its mission by administering programs that serve Harlem students and by advocating for policies that promote the educational, social, and physical well-being of Harlem’s youth.

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