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Sue Kowalski of Pine Grove Middle School in East Syracuse Minoa
Sue Kowalski of Pine Grove Middle School in East Syracuse Minoa recently won the 2011 National School Library Program of the Year (NSLPY) award from AASL (the American Association of School Librarians). This award comes with $10,000 to use for the library program.

Last year, East Syracuse Minoa’s superintendent, Donna DeSiato, met the AASL executive director, Julie Walker, at a Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) meeting and learned about the NSLPY award. DeSiato immediately recommended that Kowalski apply, recognizing Kowalski’s leadership and success as the librarian at Pine Grove.

It took about six months to prepare the application and collect letters of endorsement. After Kowalski was notified that she was a finalist, a four person committee from AASL visited the school and interviewed some of the library’s stakeholders.

Kowalski said she has used the NSLPY rubric (available here) for years as a self-evaluation tool and plan for improvement.

Besides student achievement data and informal conversations, Kowalski also evaluates the impact of her work with student and teacher surveys. 247 students (of about 800 in the school) filled out self-evaluation surveys, answering open-ended questions like what they felt were their weaknesses and strengths in the research process.

She feels that the plan for the library program must be aligned with the school improvement plan, the school district plan, and core standards. The library program must be a part of the existing umbrella initiatives of the school and district, as well as fully integrated into the community.

Kowalski says the most important thing to do in order to get the community invested in the library is to listen. She attends as many teacher meetings, administrator meetings, local events, and other forums for discussion as possible so that she can find out where perceived gaps are. Kowalski described herself as a “conduit of inside scoop,” in that by listening to what teachers are doing, she can help make connections between teachers and improve their collaboration.

Examples of Kowalski’s programs include:

    A collaborative research project for 6th, 7th and 8th graders. Kowalski found that students were confused when going from class to class and from grade to grade because many teachers used different terms to describe the research process. Additionally, some teachers were using inquiry-based learning and some were not. Kowalski has encouraged teachers to adopt a consistent problem-solving model based on the Big6 (www.big6.com) skills that balances inquiry-based learning (where kids come up with their own ideas) with structured guidance (where teachers provide strategies and tools for research). In her self-described role as support staff, Kowalski has presented the proposals and teacher training to facilitate this shift to vertical scaffolding so that the students can build on prior knowledge as they go from one grade to the next. This successful collaboration between the Pine Grove library and teachers has opened a dialog across all of East Syracuse Minoa schools towards K-12 vertical articulation of library resources and approach.

    Bookapalooza, a community book reading event, has been done four times and already it has gained so much support that it has been deemed a non-negotiable tradition to be prioritized and saved. Each year has garnered more participants.

    The Pine Grove library also received a National Grant for National Library Week. For this, kids made large signs that featured local partners. For example, one sign said “We put a stamp on reading at the library” and had a picture of the post master. Another sign said “Reading is a slice of life at the library” and had a picture of a local pizza shop mascot.

    Recently, she held a beach party event after school in the library that attracted between 50 and 60 kids. This, as she explained, was not integrated into the student achievement standards (there were smoothies and hula skirts!), but demonstrates an important aspect of a successful library program: personal connections.