DADE CITY — Christi Carroll strode among the eighth-graders, iPad in hand, reviewing their online options to create a report on the human body.
"Think about a topic that would lend itself to this," the Centennial Middle School media specialist told the class. "This is your chance to be creative."
She teamed with teacher Annie Teston, who said she relies on Carroll's expertise, until history teacher David Thompson arrived in the media center. His sixth-graders asked for a challenge, Thompson said, so they'd be scouring for resources on the Shang Dynasty to teach the next day's lesson.
"You aren't going to just Google this," Carroll instructed, raising her voice against the din of activity in the room. "You are going to start using good research techniques."
She then bounced between the classes, stopping to help other students use the online catalog, locate books and charge their phones. Students from Carroll's video production crew worked independently in a classroom off to the side.
This was, Carroll explained, a fairly usual hour in her day. And she struggled to imagine how superintendent Kurt Browning's plan to remove media specialists from all schools next year would meet these daily demands.
"I don't think it will work," said Carroll, 54, a district media specialist since 1999. "You need someone on campus who can relate to what they are going through."
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Experts in school media and digital curriculum also have roundly criticized Browning's proposal as little more than a short-sighted budget fix.
"I've seen this. It just doesn't work," said Nancy Everhart, director of Florida State University's top rated school library media program. "The kids get shortchanged."
She and others pointed to a long list of reports that conclude schools without media specialists and well-tended collections of materials see lower performance in reading, or a slower increase, on standardized tests than those with them.
Everhart acknowledged the changing role of media specialists with the advent of online content and new national standards. That might require new job descriptions, she said, but not turning media centers into warehouses staffed by aides.
Pasco assistant superintendent Amelia Larson has focused on the job description aspect of the change. Her proposal would have specialists work in regions, visiting schools to train adults on how to better incorporate research, technology and critical thinking into lessons.
The district would create about 30 such positions, which Larson said she expected would go to current media specialists. The others would be able to transfer to classroom teaching spots, if they're qualified.
"I think we need to repeat the message over and over again, and clarify it until people really understand," Larson said. "We are saying this is based on what kids need for the future."
She stressed schools cannot survive the transition to the Common Core standards in English and math if all the media expertise sits with just one staff member. Asked to respond to the research on media centers and specialists, and for any studies that might bolster the district's plan, she offered a couple of articles on the changing nature of media specialist jobs.
"We do not allow ourselves to be constrained by past practices or what we have been told is the way it has always been," Larson said in an email. "We are looking and questioning how we can do things better because future success requires us to do things differently — it is as simple and as complex as that!"
Browning also stood by the idea: "If what we are doing is working so well, then why do my test scores not reflect it?"
After announcing the planned job changes, Browning had his staff survey other Florida districts to see what they're doing.
The Sarasota school district, also trying to reduce spending, has proposed eliminating its school-based media specialists.
"The School Board said they would discuss the proposal further at their April 16 workshop," Sarasota district spokesman Gary Leatherman said. "They acknowledged that if they decide not to change the staffing of the media centers, they will need to find another way to reduce the budget by a similar amount."
Hillsborough County staffs each school.
"Librarianship is a profession," explained secondary library media supervisor Christine Van Brunt. "It's not just checking out books."
Sumter County media director Jimmy Greene sent a copy of a 2002 Orlando Sentinel article to explain why his district has media specialists in all schools.
That article detailed how Florida's school libraries had fallen way behind in staffing and materials, and that student performance lagged as a result. The Orange County school district was the poster child for problems.
Orange schools now are urged to have a media specialist. Most do, although some don't because of school-based decisions. Director George Perrault said he reviewed district data and found generally "where we had really good results is where we had really good media specialists and up-to-date collections."
"The district has taken the approach that these peoples' job is to help students and teachers find resources," he said. "The media specialist is becoming a larger part of the transition to digital curriculum."
Centennial Middle teacher Teston sees that role as key.
"When you take out the research expert, it makes it harder on the classroom teacher," Teston said.
Centennial students said Carroll helps them in ways that sometimes other teachers can't.
It's that daily confirmation that keeps Carroll, who's not a certified teacher, coming back to the job she calls her passion.
She wondered who will have the time to know about the sixth-grader who wanted books about varmint hunting, or the clique of girls who hated reading until introduced to Are You In The House Alone?
"If there's nobody there to do all that, we're just going to lose readers," Carroll said.
School Board members said they plan to review Browning's recommendation closely before deciding how to proceed. They are expected to discuss the media specialist issue during a budget workshop on Tuesday.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.