Solana Beach district to consider new plan for selecting school library books

Solana Beach School District administration building.
(Karen Billing)

The Solana Beach School District board is close to approving a new districtwide plan for school libraries. The plan will be used as a guide for the selection and evaluation of school library materials as well as provide a process for complaints regarding the appropriateness of books on the shelves at school.

The board had its first reading of the plan at a March 24 special meeting—the second reading and board action is planned for the board’s April 14 meeting.

The plan has evolved since last fall when some community members raised concerns around a set of donated books from the organization Gender Nation. The 15 books donated to every SBSD school’s library carry themes of self-acceptance with an emphasis on those who may not conform to gender norms and/or those whose gender does not match their biological sex assigned at birth.

While some were happy for the “inclusive, uplifting” stories to be included in the school library, others said they felt elementary-age students are too young to be exposed to sex and gender and that those topics should be left to be discussed at home by parents, not taught to their children at school.

SBSD Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger said that the staff’s recommendation is that book donations would go through the school library plan process and that the board would delegate the decision to the school curriculum resource teachers and the principals.

If someone does not like the instructional materials offered at school, the plan includes a parent process for restriction of student access and district reconsideration of the materials.

The plan outlines the district’s guiding principles for selecting books for libraries. The curriculum resource teachers (formerly known as librarians) consider educational value, the appropriateness and relevance of materials to the age and maturity of students, as well as the needs of each school site regarding grade levels, demographics and site-based areas of focus.

“Current educational research informs us to select books that offer both windows and mirrors to our readers…helping us build inclusive and empathetic communities of learning,” said Hollis Lefkowitz, curriculum resource teacher at Solana Highlands School. “We read to see two kinds of worlds, our own and ones we can’t imagine…Kids need to read and be read to about people unlike themselves to expand their horizons and empathy.”

With book acquisitions and recommendations, the curriculum resource teachers (CRTs) rely on multiple, well-established vetting resources and review books with fellow staff, teachers and even students.

Lefkowitz described a recent process for a book recommendation at Solana Highlands where she is expanding the library’s titles as it grows back to a K-6 school. The book “Maybe He Just Likes You”, recommended by a staff member and Junior Library Guild, tells the story of a seventh grade girl who receives unwanted physical attention and learns how to stand up for herself. The book was flagged for some potentially sensitive content and while some resources said the book was appropriate for readers as young as nine or 10, Lefkowitz’s review determined that the book was appropriate for sixth grade students only.

Per the plan, parents may request that a CRT restrict a child from checking out certain book titles or genres from the library. Information on parent review and consent for student access is expected to be shared at the start of the school year and on back-to-school nights.

At the March 24 meeting, the board discussed aspects of the plan, such as delegating its authority on book selection to CRTs.

SBSD Vice President Debra Schade said prior to the board’s approval of the plan that she wanted more clarification on how the CRTs determine age appropriateness on newer issues such as gender identity and sexual identity where there are opinions from professionals on both sides about when it is appropriate to introduce these topics to the school curriculum. After reading the books donated by Gender Nation, there were some that she was uncomfortable with and wasn’t sure about the appropriateness for younger K-3 students.

Schade said while she was comfortable relegating decision-making to the district’s professional staff, she did want to be aware of parent complaints or about new material that may be considered sensitive.

“I don’t want the authority on everything but there are some areas as a board member I feel like it’s my responsibility to have some oversight in certain cases,” Schade said. “The concern is getting blindsided by a parent who’s written this horrible email about what they’ve read in a book that’s in the library and I didn’t even know. As a board member I need to be aware of controversial titles that are on our bookshelves.”

SBSD Trustee Julie Union agreed with Schade’s comments and said she preferred not to delegate authority for book donations straight to CRTs and allow the board and community an opportunity to look at materials, especially those on sensitive topics.

Union said when she read the donated books, the vast majority she was in favor of but there were some that she had concerns with and would be hesitant to have her grandson read in elementary school.

“It’s very sensitive…Overall we want to show love and kindness and making sure we’re doing what’s best for all kids and showing empathy and understanding,” Union said. “But there are also some things that could cause confusion and misunderstanding.”

SBSD Trustee Dana King said he supports the plan as written, that delegates power to the professionals through a process but still allows parents to feel like they have some control. As a board member he does not want to be in the position of deciding whether a book is appropriate or not. He said there will likely be books that he personally does not like but he trusts CRTs and doesn’t want to take away their ability to offer a book to a student that may help them: “Those kinds of books could save a kid’s life.”

“What this has done has create a really excellent foundation for how we look at curriculum and how we look at books, from the professionals’ viewpoint,” King said of the plan. “We’re leaving this to the professionals and that’s where I want to leave it.”