Thursday, October 23, 2008

SLJ Talks to Caroline Kennedy

Debra Lau Whelan
SLJ: 2008 October 23

Caroline Kennedy is asking New Yorkers to shop until they drop. Well, at least for one week out of the year. Her Shop for Public Schools program—which this year ran from October 1-8—raises money specifically for needy school libraries by asking retailers to donate a portion of their proceeds. The program is a key part of Fund for Public Schools, which raises private investments and where Kennedy is vice chair.

SLJ spoke to the attorney, author, and philanthropist about the importance of school libraries and what’s next on her agenda.

Shop for Schools is specifically for school libraries. How did that come about?
One of the main thrusts of the work of the Fund for Public Schools is to encourage everybody in the city to feel like there’s something they can do—and to think about what that is—to help the kids in our schools. The retail community came forward with this idea that they wanted to do something, a promotion. So we talked to them about what the money should go for, and I think they felt that, obviously, literacy is the most important thing. They thought it would be very clear and easy for shoppers to understand.

What can school libraries buy with these funds?
The way we’ve developed the program is that libraries apply to us for grants of up to $10,000. The library and the school community has to come together to decide what their priorities are. It’s different for different libraries. I think that kind of flexibility really has served the program very well because some libraries want technology, while other libraries are helping kids do eighth-grade research projects. Other libraries want dual language. There’s also been a real emphasis on developmental, social, and emotional issues, teen issues, and some libraries have used [the grant money] for those kinds of collections or family literacy programs. I think it’s been so successful because the school, the principal, the librarian, and the school community decides what it is that their school needs, rather than it being dictated from us.

Do you think other cities can duplicate this program?
I think they easily could. We’re lucky here that we have a wonderful woman running the library services department, Barbara Stripling. But I think libraries can really be the heart of the school. It’s where kids can really explore and follow whatever interests them and that kind of independent learning is so important. It’s an ideal thing for the private sector to do. There are many, many needs in schools so every city has to decide what’s right for them. A lot of communities have book drives and reading programs of many different kinds, and so this kind of an effort complements those very well.

How did you personally get interested in school libraries?
I love reading, and obviously reading and independent reading are critical to education in today’s world. Having a library card is one of the most exciting moments of a kid's life. I think school libraries in the same way are an oasis of exploration and tranquility and curiosity. I always enjoyed it myself, but I think obviously it’s because reading and loving to learn and the discovery that exists in the library are so critical today that it seemed like a natural place for communities to support. Our work is how to tie and integrate the private sector into the work of the public schools. So libraries, and arts education and things like that, are a naWhat do you think are some of the biggest problems facing school libraries todaytural area for the private sector to support the work that goes on in our schools.

What do you think are some of the biggest problems facing school libraries today?
So many of our schools are under-resourced in many, many ways and libraries are one of them. In New York, we’ve seen sort of a renewal of spirit and mission in our school libraries and school librarians. That’s so important because people are focused on the core subjects, and some people think libraries are not first in line and they’re toward the end. I think it’s so important when the principal and the librarian can work together and the library really is an integral part of the curriculum and student work. It’s probably getting that balance right—in addition to the resources—that makes the library successful. And once that happens then I think everybody appreciates the value that they provide. But if they are just a stand-alone thing and kids just get sent there and there’s not really learning going on, then it becomes easier to not value the work of the librarian and the library.

Did your kids grow up spending time in libraries?
Being read to by the librarian, library period, or bringing home books were things they always enjoyed.

I heard that one of your family traditions was to write poems as gifts to each other.
It was writing or finding a poem in a poetry book or anthology and picking a poem out that we liked, and either memorizing it or copying it over. That was one of the gifts we would give to my mother and my grandparents on holidays or birthdays. I think that really gave my brother and me an appreciation for that sort of independent reading and discovery. Of course, we complained about it all the time, but in fact, it’s something that I think stuck with both of us—and turned into a lifelong love of poetry, literature, and ideas.

Do you still give poems to each other on holidays?
For my children? Well, they like to get things besides poems for Christmas (laughs). But they give them to me. It’s kind of a one-way thing: it goes from the child to the parent, but not so much the other way around. Although, I do, if I find a poem that I think they will like, I send it to them.

What’s in the works for you now?
I’m working on building Shop for Public Schools even bigger and better next year, and we have a lot of other projects. I’m also doing another book of poems to learn by heart for kids.

When is that coming out?
It depends when I do it, probably in two years or a year and a half from now. I’m a little behind schedule. I got a little busy with other things.

You’ve been a huge supporter of Barack Obama. If he becomes president how will his administration change the educational landscape?
I wouldn’t want to speak for him. There are a lot of plans on his Web site, but I think—to tell you what I’ve heard—the big basics are a stronger emphasis on childhood education, on rewarding and attaining and attracting teachers. And then really there is a huge effort to make college more affordable and accessible. So it’s the entire system. There will be a whole new spirit coming into it, hopefully.

What are you thoughts about reauthorizing No Child Left Behind?
That’s a different kind of interview! It’s just a huge and complicated subject and everyone has spoken about the problems and the need for more funding. I share a lot of those concerns.

I know you’ve been asked this a million times, but do you have any political aspirations and would you serve in an Obama administration if asked?
Well, I’ve got to finish my poems-to-learn-by-heart book first.