Literacy and the access to diverse books was one of the main topics of discussion. (Brian W. Carter/L.A. Sentinel)

On Thursday, April 4, it was National School Librarian Day and U.S. Deputy Secretary Cindy Marten visited Susan Miller Dorsey High School for a roundtable discussion on the importance of public school libraries, librarians, and literacy.

“Literacy matters completely,” said Marten. “Literacy is how you interact with meaning and text and students being able to walk into a library and see it filled with books, hang out with other people, who are living a literate life, it’s very much a social interaction as much as it is an interaction with books.”

The conversation was hosted by the Los Angeles Unified School District and the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) an AFT and NEA affiliate.

“Our schools are doing fantastic work and we got to see that when he visited Ms. Hapuarachy’s classroom today,” said Georgia Flowers Lee, UTLA NEA vice president.

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“When our administrators or teachers, our unions, when we all come together to do good work for our schools, our schools are successful.”

“I really do appreciate that here at Dorsey we do have a lot of freedom to choose and set our curriculum in that way, so that’s great,” said Sharonne Hapuarachy, UTLA member and teacher at Dorsey. “I do try to balance books that reflect students’ own cultures with books that expose them to other cultures, like last semester, we read “The Kite Runner,” which is set in Afghanistan, but we’re still looking at the theme of the class differences and oppression and things like that.”

National School Librarian Day highlighted the importance of school librarians and a school staff that supports students in learning to read, and ultimately reading to learn.  (Brian W. Carter/L.A. Sentinel)

Literacy and the access to diverse books was one of the main topics of discussion. The panel spoke about how reading empowers students to become leaders.

“Literacy matters but it doesn’t just happen by accident, and it doesn’t just happen because we want great strong literacy classrooms, it happens by design, it happens with investment, it happens because of great professional development, it happens because the whole community understands the importance of a literate environment,” said Marten.

“The other part of it I think is trying to give the students the ability to leave the class, like the socratic seminar,” said Hapuarachy. “It’s students who are taking initiative to write their own discussion questions.”

Hapuarachy continued, “They come in prepared with things that they read that they found interesting, they create the questions, and they ask each other what one another thinks.

“I think the more students can take the front of the room or take center stage, I think that alone is something that helps promote literacy and helps them actually enjoy the process rather than I’m up there asking them a question and saying right or wrong.”

Orlando Johnson, principal at Dorsey, echoed much of what Hapuarachy stated and how literacy is vital.

“I think that reading is important, I think that our role is to help students make meaning of text,” said Johnson.

“We’re always looking at the next step and we look at our students going to college, being professionals, having high level positions and you have to be able to read in an efficient manner.

“You have to be able to attack text in an efficient manner and get the most important information from it in order to do whatever it is you need to be able to do.”

Reading is key to opening up pathways and possibilities for students. The national day of recognition highlighted the importance of school librarians and school staff that supports student literacy. Dorsey librarian John Beilock is happy about the help the district has recently received but stated more needs to be done.

“For the past three years, the district has spent $50 million on refreshing all libraries within their LAUSD,” said Beilock. “That’s a lot of money and a lot of books.”

Beilock continued, “It’s a great thing, we have never had a refresher in the 11 years that I’ve been here, and I’ve not had money to buy books so, the age of the collection was 1999 last year.

“As an aside, it’s great to have this money and we’re really happy with it, but what we really would like to see as librarians is a sustainable collection development fund so that every year, we can purchase new books.”

Brennen Higgins-Bell is a student at Dorsey and sat on the panel with her mother, Sherri Bell. They both talked about how literacy is a doorway to success.

“We’re reading ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ by Zora Neale Hurston and for me, I enjoy the book because I like seeing black culture in class so, the dialogue in the story and then just the idea of having original Black stories in class for me, it’s helpful,” said Higgins-Bell.

She continued, “I think in people’s young years, they’re some of the most formative so, students should see themselves reflected in what they read in class because they’re still discovering themselves and their identity and representation is important.”

“I feel very honored that Dorsey is taking time to invest and expanding students’ perspective by introducing them to different books of not only their own culture, which is hugely important because it reflects how they see themselves in the world, but other cultures,” said Bell.

Bell continued, “I always believe that reading also prepares you to be a great writer as well, which is a hugely important skill set that is needed in today’s professional arena, so I’m really happy that she’s reading such a book that is on the level of an adult maybe far as the difficulty level and learning new vocabulary, learning new ways to think about things to prepare her and other students for life after Dorsey.”

As part of the event, UTLA will be giving away 500 books through the American Federation of Teachers’ Reading Opens the World initiative, designed to support students, educators and families and foster an ongoing love of reading. Lee emphasized the importance of literacy as it also promotes diversity.

“California is a progressive state, but we are not immune,” said Lee. “Just a few months ago, in an elementary school right across the hill, there was an anti-LGBTQIA rally, where literally folks were protesting the reading of a book that simply acknowledged that there are people from that community, who are parents, that they exist, that we have students in our schools, who may have two moms or two dads.”

Lee continued, “We have got to be very, very aware that the folks who are pushing this extremism, who are pushing this fascism, that they exist here and while they’re trying to ban books, the American federation of teachers is handing books to our kids, books that reflect the diversity of our students, books that allow them to see themselves, books that reflect all the diversity that makes L.A. and LAUSD a magnificent place for our students.”

“Libraries still matter,” said Marten. “A lot of people get their digital books from the library at the Libby app or different apps, different libraries have different ways to electronically access books.

“At the end of the day, it is a people process, being literate is interacting with meaning and so we want more libraries, more supports.”

“I want to thank or national affiliates, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers for putting together this event, for allowing the light that shines at Dorsey to be reflected, to be magnified and to be seen by our communities,” said Lee.

For more information about the United Teachers Los Angeles, visit To learn more about the Los Angeles Unified School District, visit