Core Leadership with Sue Kowalski

By Christine Vickers, MLS, CAS

Even in 2015, the image of a School Librarian and a school library program may conjure up traditional images. But at Pine Grove Middle School in the East Syracuse Minoa School District, something very special is happening and their Librarian Sue Kowalski is at its core. She has managed to integrate the library program into every curriculum area and it extends far beyond the walls of the physical library, now under new construction.

Sue began her career as a reading teacher in the Syracuse City School District and entered the library field by chance. But since then has become a nationally recognized innovator in the library community, receiving a National School Library Program award of $10,000 from the Follett Library Resources corporation in 2011.  Currently, the building is under construction, students and teachers are spread out among six different temporary locations. Sue continues to addresses the needs of the students & staff in each location working with teachers primarily in their classrooms, a very different, nontraditional model. This is but one example of Sue’s innovative approach to library services, that are integrated, mobile, flexible and project based.

Ms. Lindy

Sue’s creative thinking went into overdrive as she thought about how to address the mobility of the library program during the renovation and have a little fun in the process. Using her own funds, from the ‘I Love My Librarian Award’ she received a few years prior, (one of only 10 Librarians in the country to receive such an award) Sue and her husband purchased a 1989 RV that has become the famous Ms.Lindy. The original owner anointed Ms. Lindy with her name honoring the RV brand name and the many years of happy memories they had on adventures with her. Sue stocked her with books, added a Parrot mascot, RePeat(to encourage repeat visits to the Library) and Miss Lindy was ready to roll. Sue reports, “I come and park it at one of our locations and kids are able to come in and check out books; it is basically an extension of what we are doing in school.” Ms. Lindy also makes appearances at district events, has hosted make and take project evenings, photo booth nights and helped collect books for United Way in a Stuff the Bus event connected with a local Library Conference.

Powerful Partnerships

Sue shares that her personal philosophy is that a Librarian needs to be a leader to be successful in their school community. “The idea that a librarian waits for business to come to them is long gone, we need to be the person in our schools to take charge of making connections”, Sue enthusiastically explains. “I don’t think I have ever stopped transforming what I think a library can be.” Her colleague, 6th grade Social Studies & Science teacher Susanne Sobon agrees, “Working with Sue has totally opened up the Social Studies and Science curriculum that I teach. Sue is extremely creative in her ways of working around traditional and nontraditional challenges that can infiltrate the school environment.”  Sue notes that many of her conversations with staff often take place virtually. “There may be less face time but there are lots of opportunities for rich collaboration. In the past I may have had a teacher put a written request in my box and now I’m texting teachers, using social media or maybe hopping on a Google drive and working on a document or project together that way.”

On the Library web site, Sue has placed a collaboration request form that teachers and staff may fill out online and submit.  Requests for assistance may include; a teaching partner, books, a special event or program, a grant idea or what Sue has deemed a libguide for a specific project or unit of study. Libguides are essentially web based portals designed for simple point and click access and containing great resources that are age and content appropriate for students. “The libguides have really been game changers in the sense that all the resources are right there in one place and are based on the teachers learning goals for a specific project, “says Sue.

Sue monitors how many hits a specific lib guide receives and is then able to make adjustments accordingly. “On our web site we have a listing for the top ten libguides for the year. The one on teen health received 1800 hits, the one I did for my principal disseminating important information he needed to get out to the public received 1700. Because this resource is web based, parents and the extended community are also able to access and use these resources.”

Not only does Sue partner with teachers and staff, she initiated a formalized student leadership program, ISTAFF. With this program she has trained to students to take responsibility for some high impact activities in the library where they are helping other students and their teachers as well. “This was a mindset shift that occurred for me as I was thinking about how to best utilize and integrate all our resources while getting kids involved; now it becomes our library.”

Based on the world we live in, technology is certainly at the forefront of this library program. Yet books are still king in the library and Sue thoroughly enjoys providing that reading guidance to her students. “I might have a child who says, I need another book in that series or I hate to read and I have to do report, can you help me?  I try to never say no we don’t have that or you can’t read that. I always try to seek out something that will work for them and that they will like.”

When asked about what new resources she is looking forward to using with students this upcoming school year, Sue notes Google Apps for Education are at the top of her list. “With the free resource, CS First kids are able to design their own online environment in the specific style that works for their brain. By doing so, they can really become more proficient in using Google and more invested in the learning process.”

Sue said that she is most proud that her staff and school community know that she is up for anything and that she has done her part in shifting that old school stereotype. “I have been invited to take a leadership role and sit at some tables that librarians might not typically attend.

My goal is to connect people to resources and strategies.  The most exciting part of the job for me is when other people; administrators, teachers and staff feel empowered to use the available resources to make that powerful connection for students.”

To learn more about Pine Grove Middle School’s Library Program visit:
Connect on Twitter: @spkowalski  or @MsLindymobile