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    Sunday, March 03, 2024

    With another librarian, it’s a new chapter for Ledyard elementary schools

    Library media specialist Amy Armstrong reads the book “Jamie O’Rourke and the Big Potato: An Irish Folktale” by Tomie DePaola, Friday, March 17, 2023, to a kindergarten class at Gales Ferry School in Ledyard. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Gales Ferry School kindergarten student J.P. Costa looks at a book Friday, March 17, 2023, while Logan Slavin, in the background, tries to decide which book to check out. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Library media specialist Amy Armstrong talks about the different sections of books Friday, March 17, 2023 at the Gales Ferry School library in Ledyard. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Ledyard ― When Amy Armstrong heard last year that Ledyard Public Schools would add another elementary school library media specialist starting in the 2022-23 school year, she was shocked. This is her fourth year in Ledyard, and she had been splitting each day between Gallup Hill School and Gales Ferry/Juliet W. Long School.

    “This wasn’t the priority of so many districts,” she said.

    But it happened, and she is now working full-time at Gales Ferry School while Wendy Hellekson is the library media specialist at Gallup Hill School. Though Armstrong said she misses the kids ― and adults ― at Gallup Hill, she is now able to do much more for the Gales Ferry students.

    Superintendent Jason Hartling said librarians have moved between schools for the past nine years or so, in many iterations: At one point, the high school librarian was covering an elementary school.

    When Armstrong and Hellekson presented to the board of education last month about improvements made possible by having another librarian, Hartling commented that he thinks the attitude several years ago was that “this was some luxurious extra thing to have” but he thinks it should be a base expectation.

    “Literacy is a critical growth area for us as a district and part of that is building and imbuing a love of reading for our children,” the superintendent said in an email Tuesday. He added that library media specialists not only support literacy but also teach research and other critical 21st century skills revolving around critical thinking and communication.

    Friday marked Armstrong’s last day at school before maternity leave. Library paraprofessional Heather Shipley, a certified teacher, is taking over in her absence.

    Between classes, she told The Day it was “really tricky” while she was split between the two schools to make as much of an impact as she could on all her students.

    Armstrong is adapting to a very different school population: She noted Gallup Hill School has more Mashantucket Pequot students, whereas Gales Ferry School has a very transient population of military kids.

    She said the Gales Ferry School library “got a huge makeover over the summer.” Books previously organized by the last name of the author are now in sections divided by topic, such as dogs, dragons and friendship.

    Being full-time at one school allowed her to do more for Read Across America Week earlier this month, which she described as her “Olympics.” She has done more reading challenges, such as ones with a bingo-like format.

    Armstrong is also trying to let teachers know she can take things off their plates. She said Shipley can stay in the library when Armstrong goes into classrooms, to help second-graders with their animal research project and fifth-graders with their Native American tribal research project.

    Hellekson also said she’s trying to show teachers how to use more online research databases.

    In the area of student computer skills and computer literacy, she is now teaching kids in grades three to five about how photographs on the internet can be altered. She has taught them how to make slideshow presentations and format documents using Google applications, as well as how to cite sources.

    Hellekson said a lot of the collection is older and she’s buying books that kids want to read. Students love graphic novels, and she said the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series ― which Hellekson commended for its high-level vocabulary and character development ― is also popular.

    She also has kids writing books, and showed an example of a graphic novel a third-grader created about friendship.

    A big focus has been increasing the number of books students take back with them to read. She said Tuesday the Gallup Hill School library has had 8,500 books checked out since September, double the previous year, if not more.

    Different paths to the library

    Hellekson, now a second-generation librarian, said she “took to it like a duck to water.” She previously spent 17 years as an English as a Second Language teacher at Ella T. Grasso Technical High School in Groton.

    Hellekson had what she called a “ridiculous” amount of books in her classroom and was always encouraging students to read. She finished her master’s degree in library science with a K-12 certification ― her second master’s ― right around the time the pandemic hit.

    The position at Gallup Hill School is a great fit: Hellekson’s 14-year-old son went there, and she lives five minutes away. She noted working with a younger set of students means she’s not yelling at kids about cell phones or telling them to stop swearing.

    “It’s way busier than I expected it to be, but I love it. I love it,” Hellekson said. “It’s very fun. The kids are funny and engaging.”

    Armstrong came to Ledyard four years ago through what’s called a Durational Shortage Area Permit from the Connecticut State Department of Education. This meant she was permitted to teach while finishing her certification.

    She had a master’s degree in teaching ― but not a library degree ― and was teaching educational technology to students in preschool through second grade for three years in Colchester. When the library media specialist there retired, another teacher completed an alternative certification program created to address the statewide shortage of qualified, certified library media specialists.

    That opened Armstrong’s eyes to the opportunity, she said. She completed the one-year certification program from Area Cooperative Educational Services, the regional educational resource for south central Connecticut, during her first year working in Ledyard school libraries.

    While Armstrong said she has already made a lot of changes and additions to the Gales Ferry School library, she’s hardly finished: “I definitely have big dreams.”

    e.moser@theday.com

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