Rebuilding Some Old City Libraries; New Spaces Are 'Classrooms' with Technological Features

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 20, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Rebuilding Some Old City Libraries; New Spaces Are 'Classrooms' with Technological Features


Byline: Ann Geracimos, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

It wasn't only serendipity that made Capitol Hill's School Libraries Project a reality, but it helped. Just as important were parental drive and a determination to succeed.

The grass-roots, volunteer-led project, results of which were dedicated in late October, has brought about a complete renovation and upgrade of the libraries in three of the community's public schools, with five more to come.

And it was done under budget in only 20 months, including early organizing efforts. The schools affected to date are Stuart-Hobson Middle School, Brent Elementary and Ludlow-Taylor Elementary, part of an eight-member consortium.

The accomplishment, which involved the cooperation of two area foundations as well as the federal and District governments, isn't entirely unprecedented locally, says Suzanne Wells, an employee of the Environmental Protection Agency who is project co-chairwoman along with professional property manager Todd Cymrot, both Hill residents who are parents of young children.

But the scope of the project may have set a record for public-private partnerships of this kind, involving as it did so many volunteers and pro bono professionals. (According to Ms. Wells, a similar feat took place four years ago to reclaim the library in the J.O. Wilson Elementary School in the District's Northeast.)

Still, with so many District schools in need of physical rehabilitation, why would the group tackle only libraries?

"This isn't just about our kids, but about all kids. Our goal is to get kids excited about being in a library and, from that, get excited about wanting to read, and from there the test scores will go up," says Ms. Wells, who helped foment the process by bringing together presidents of Capitol Hill PTAs for discussion about what could be done to improve what they saw as major weaknesses in local schools.

"We were just little PTA presidents, trying to be sure kids who go to school here get great facilities and a great education," she says.

At their first meeting in January 2005 they talked about the weakness of the libraries.

"Another month someone mentioned the Wilson project and then the next, a similar initiative in New York City. We were fortunate because the Capitol Hill Community Foundation heard about what we wanted to do and said they would help," she says. "We just felt that new books, new carpeting and bookcases weren't enough, that we had to start from scratch."

By focusing on the foundation and its philanthropic arm, the project helped inspire what Mr. Cymrot calls "a major shift in money coming from neighbors."

The budget for each school is $300,000. CHCF made a $200,000 donation right away and raised another $300,000, although it normally only endorses four-figure grants. The District's public schools and Congress, plus a number of law firms and other local foundations upped the ante considerably. Another $1.5 million is needed to finish the job, which will cost a total $2.4 million when completed next year. Project officials hope to have the remaining five libraries ready by fall, with construction taking place after schools close for the summer.

Someone in the PTA presidents' group knew about the Washington Architectural Foundation (WAF), the nonprofit arm of the Washington Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, whose Community Design Services program enlists architectural firms willing to offer free advice; the project's application was filed with the WAF in July 2005.

"With 50 percent of the District's school children reading below grade level, this is an opportunity for architects to give back to the community they help build" is the rationale expressed in a recent WAF press release.

Another hallmark was the cooperation and support of the DCPS facilities department and principals at each of the schools.

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Rebuilding Some Old City Libraries; New Spaces Are 'Classrooms' with Technological Features
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