Jessica Parker would like all students at Kaneland High School’s library to feel welcome, whether they need a quiet place to complete schoolwork, conduct research or are simply seeking refuge from the chaos and challenges of being a busy teenager.
While just in her second year at the high school, Parker, the library’s media specialist, is making a huge impact on students with her arrival during the pandemic.
“I could just tell when I was interviewed that everyone who was involved, the teachers and administrators, were looking for something a little different than a traditional librarian,” she said. “Coming from a public library maybe helped a little bit. It is about the place and what the space has to offer, making it welcoming to a variety of different people.”
Parker always has been interested in education, but didn’t know in what capacity she could make the biggest impact, she said. It seems she’s found it at the library at Kaneland.
She achieved a bachelor’s degree in special education and attained a master’s degree in library science, Parker said. She spent 13 years at the Geneva Public Library, Parker said.
“I sometimes kind of joke that I could barely manage myself at 20-whatever with my bachelor’s, so managing a classroom wasn’t in the cards,” Parker said. “I ended up finding a job at a public library and did outreach for schools. I decided it was time for a change and I saw this job opening and I feel like it’s been a good choice.”
Parker is able to see herself in the countless high school students who use the library. By connecting with them, she’s sparking imagination, assisting their classroom assignments, helping their continued development of critical thinking and offering kindness.
“She’s the kind of person that connects with kids and she can see herself in those kids,” said Anne Kuntz, a school counselor at Kaneland. “She provides a safe place in the school for the kind of kid who needs a break from all the chaos, a quiet safe place to just be.”
Working for a district where personalized learning with rigor, relevance and relationship is its top priority, Parker strives to do her part so that each student who uses the library ultimately graduates college, career and community ready.
“A lot of libraries are calling themselves ‘learning commons,’” she said. “There’s always a buzz word. It’s centered on personalized learning, which is where Kaneland is heading, and I think you know I see value in that. It’s a process that we’re all learning about. I think when students take charge of their own learning they’re going to be more successful, but it takes some time.”
It hasn’t taken Parker long to cultivate a welcoming environment for students. She’s created an oasis in the Maple Park high school for more than 1,300 students.
“She is so kind and understanding and very open,” Kuntz said. “She goes the extra mile. If a counselor asks to keep an eye on someone, she’ll see them. She’s sort of a mentor and one of the hardest working people in the school. She’s very determined to not just have a library with books but a place for her to cultivate relationships with kids.”
While some high schoolers have Wordle fever, Parker hasn’t caught on. Still, many of her library guests are really into the daily online word game so she’s using those social interactions to further develop relationships with kids.
“All students assume I play it so they ask me,” she said. “They say, ‘But you’re a librarian,’ and I just freeze. If you ask me what my favorite book is, I just freeze. It’s whatever I’m reading right now. A lot of kids do play Wordle so it’s interesting to see them talking to each other about it.”
As for reading habits, Parker said she’s heard from English teachers that fewer students seem to be reading for enjoyment these days with TikTok, Netflix and video games proving more appealing.
“Not everyone is a big reader, so we talk about the benefits of reading for pleasure and how the more words you’re exposed to, the better it gets,” she said. “There’s a lot of stigma about reading. A lot of people, not just kids, feel that they’re not good at it or have to follow rules and can’t read a graphic novel or [listen to an] audiobook, but they can.”
Parker said she wants to create a culture of reading at the school.
“I’m working on creating a reading challenge that hopefully we’ll get going next year that won’t just be reading but other activities that students can participate in,” she said. “We started a word of the week. We’ve bulked up our historical fiction and realistic fiction based on what we’re seeing people ask for.”
And if you’re looking for a book suggestion from Parker today, she suggests the two-book Skyhunter series from Marie Lu.
“It’s sci-fi dystopia and it was really interesting,” she said. “It’s one that I didn’t want to put down. I recommend it.”