How this South L.A. library aide has built a bond with students while trying to keep her job alive
Laura Juarez is proud to say she knows nearly all the students at Twentieth Street Elementary School.
As the full-time library aide at the South-Alameda elementary school, she enjoys visits from the more than 600 students. Juarez reads to students in kindergarten through third grade and helps the kids select new books to read.
Tuesdays are Juarez’s busiest days. In the mornings, she gets to school at 7:45 a.m. Her first class arrives half an hour later and about six other classes visit her before she ends her day at 1:30 p.m. She uses her last 15 minutes to clean up before she heads to California State University, Dominguez Hills in Carson where she is a full-time student.
To Juarez, creating a safe space for students in the library is crucial.
“They just need somebody there … and sometimes the library is just what they need,” said Juarez, 32. “[Sometimes they need] to talk to somebody or for them just to have that quiet space to be able to read and get away from the noise.”
But as Juarez deals with students’ issues, she’s also coping with some of her own. Working for the Los Angeles Unified School District, Juarez has experienced job instability as a library aide. She’s worked at four different schools in 12 years, pushed from one position to another because of seniority and budget cuts. Turmoil was at its peak in 2010 and 2011 when more than 100 library aides were laid off. That year, Juarez took a pay cut and had to pay for her own benefits when she was bumped from a library aide to a teacher’s assistant.
Last Tuesday, the school board voted to fund library aides in all district elementary schools for the next school year, instead of relying on school principals to find money from their budgets to secure the positions. This vote follows budget changes in March that allowed for the funds to go toward other positions outside the library. The budget change caused 139 schools to redirect the funds, according to a budget impact statement from April. These cuts and funding reallocation ultimately required principals set aside money from their own budgets to pay for benefits and to contribute additional funding to keep the position full time.
Still, only a third of library aides are employed full time.
Luckily for Juarez, it appears her full-time position will remain for now.
Twentieth Street Elementary School Principal Mario Garcielita has worked to keep Juarez’s position since he first recruited her five years ago. He’s happy the school has secured funding for her position for the upcoming school year.
“We’re very fortunate to have one and since I’ve been here, Mrs. Juarez has helped us renovate the library,” Garcielita said. “She’s always helping us find ways to get the kids involved in reading.”
Juarez, however, remains wary as she reflects on the 12 years of job uncertainty. At times, she’s gone from working full six-hour days to three-hour days. When she was part time a few years ago, she had to balance a second job and classwork as a full-time student.
“I’m not going to lie, I have thought about [leaving] but then I remember all my kids and I remember all their little faces,” Juarez said. “Until I get a for sure ‘We don’t have money for you’ … that’s when I’d probably be into a panic mode and be like, ‘OK, I need to find somewhere else to go.’”
This is what makes the job so hard, she said. She develops relationships with her students, but as each school year ends, Juarez isn’t always sure if she’ll get to return. She usually isn’t informed about the status of her position until the start of summer.
“We don’t get that closure or that goodbye or to be able to tell some of these kids we’re leaving,” Juarez said. “If you do get that chance, a lot of the kids don’t understand why … They don’t comprehend that … I’m being moved to another school to be a library aide. It’s sad.”
For now, Juarez’s focus is on the students. As a sociology major, Juarez applies what she learns in class to the library when interacting with students. Juarez, who intends to eventually go into counseling, said she tries to understand students, especially when they act out.
“A lot of parents are working two or three jobs to make ends meet; some [students] go home and they’re hungry and they don’t eat until the next day when they come into school,” she said. “I try not to yell at them … and [instead find out] what’s going on.
“It helps me try to understand them a little bit more because at the end of the day they’re only human and they’re dealing with stuff at home that you don’t know,” she added.
Juarez believes the best way she can help her students is to foster a love for reading and storytelling. She remembers growing up in Lincoln Heights thrilled by the worlds created by “Harry Potter” and “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” — both series she’s happy to see on the shelves of Twentieth Street Elementary.
“One of the reasons I think a lot of these kids love reading is because they go into different worlds and they see different things,” Juarez said. “A lot of them haven’t been to the beach, they’ve never been to the mountains, they’ve never been to Disneyland, so they’re able to experience this through these books.”
Students are grateful for Juarez and the library.
“This is a special place to get peace and quiet,” said Kevin Hernandez, a fourth grader at Twentieth Street Elementary School. “It’s helped a lot.”
Students like fifth grader Eden Rocha have recognized her support and have listened to her recommendations. He’s read “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and a few books on rocks and volcanoes.
“When I don’t have good books to read, I come here to the library and I tell miss what type of books she recommends and that helps me a lot with my fluency and my reading,” Rocha said.
Though it isn’t always easy, Juarez tries to keep the library updated. She’ll perform “surgery” on books when spines split and pages start to tear. She’ll apply to grants and try to order new books once a year.
Juarez hopes the library aide position continues. Without them, there would be no school libraries at elementary schools in the district, which would be dire for the students, she said.
“I really do wish we weren’t going through this budget crisis right now because library aides are important for the students,” Juarez said. “Believe it or not, there are some kids that don’t want to be outside playing. They want to be in the library; they want to sit and read.”