School :Libraries: Students Call Michigan Library ‘Home’

School :Libraries: Students Call Michigan Library ‘Home’

By Steve Zalusky, @ your library staff

The school library at Swan Valley High School in Saginaw, Mich. is deeply rooted in its community. In fact, many students call it home.

Its excellence was recognized by the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), a division of the American Library Association, which awarded it, along with two other libraries, the 2013 National School Library Program of the Year (NSLPY) Award.

Sponsored by Follett Library Resources, the NSLPY annually recognizes up to three school library programs that meet the needs of the changing school and library environment and are fully integrated into the school’s curriculum. Each recipient receives an obelisk – the symbol of school library excellence – $10,000 toward its school library program.

The school proves you don’t need fancy trappings to provide excellent library services.

School librarian Kay Wejrowski said, “Our bookends don’t match. Most of the furniture in our library is from the seventies. And yes, we still have some giant box computer monitors. But the patrons in our library don’t even notice. What they do see, however, is a safe place where their questions are answered, their thirst for knowledge is quenched, and their educational, and often social and personal needs, are met.”

The students and staff of Swan Valley attest to that. One teacher told the NSLPY award committee that the library is a welcoming place that “sucks you in.”

When asked what is special about their school, students invariably answer that it is the library.  A 9th grade student simply stated, “When you come to the library, you come home.”

“It was clear from meeting with administration, teachers, counselors and students that the Swan Valley school library is firmly ensconced in every aspect of the school,” said Katherine Lowe, award committee chair.  “Everyone knows that the library will have or find the answer to their problem. Kay reads widely, listens to teachers, and intuitively understands the integration of library materials and skills across the curriculum, as well as supporting technology access in the library and across campus.”

There are two major reasons for the success of the program: the dynamic personality of the librarian and the support of the school principal.

Though library staffing and programming was cut in every other building in the Swan Valley school district, Principal Mat McRae fought to maintain the high school library. He further vowed before the superintendent and school board that as long as he was principal, there would be no cuts to the library program.  In his letter of support for Swan Valley’s NSLPY consideration, he writes “The forces of technology, imaginative spirit, personal drive and resourcefulness of our school library program have combined to create a learning environment where all of our students can and do learn. Our community, our staff, and most importantly our students cannot envision our school without our library. It is one of the reasons Swan Valley High School is a special place to learn and achieve.”

The school, which is about to graduate its 40th class exudes a family atmosphere.

“A number of the students who come to our school, their parents went to school here. And a few of them, their grandparents went to school here,” Wejrowski said.

Once a vital cog in Michigan’s automotive industry, the area is also economically diverse.

“We have some very nice homes not too far from here, and then we have families living in poverty,” she said.

Perhaps because it is sensitive to this diversity, the library strongly promotes social justice.

For example, a few years ago, the Great Michigan Read was Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle, which dealt with racial problems in Detroit in the 1920s, telling the story of a black middle class family denied the chance to move into a predominantly white neighborhood.

Wejrowski said, “We used that book in some of our classes,” adding that the library supplemented the classroom instruction.

And then it went a step beyond, raising money for Habitat for Humanity. The students also spent an entire month working on houses in Saginaw.

Every year, the library, working with an advisory council composed primarily of students, promotes a theme. This year’s theme is peace.

This year the library is promoting a peace theme – Read for Peace – Work for Justice.

Wejrowski said the library is using Wendy Anderson Halperin’s book Peace as a springboard for lessons across the curriculum.

In addition, the library is having Anderson herself come this January to work with children interested in writing.

Art students are painting pieces with peace themes on the Adirondack chairs built by the industrial arts department.

“We have Adirondack chairs coming out of our ears,” she said.

The chairs will be auctioned off in the spring to support the prevention of child abuse and neglect.

Wejrowski said she recently brought in Saginaw County Circuit Judge Darnell Jackson, author of The Steps of a Good Man, to speak with the children in the aftermath of a recent drive-by shooting in Saginaw that resulted in the death of a 6-year-old girl.

“(The judge) talked to the kids about the decisions that you make and how you can control your community and control yourself.”

The library’s commitment to social justice is tied to its commitment to literacy.

Wejrowski said, “Literacy is going to be the key to their success as students.”

She said on the very first day of school, the children go to the library to check out books.

“Reading a book and talking about what took place but then giving them an avenue for community action and social responsibility makes all the difference in the world.”

The library partners with local agencies on such community projects as Strive 4 A Safer Drive, a program through the Michigan State Police that provides funding and resources to help teens teach other teens about safe driving.

The program is open to Michigan high schools in the top counties for teen traffic fatalities and serious injuries. Topics can include distracted driving, seat belts, impaired driving, speeding, and winter driving.

Each participating school receives $2,000 from AAA Michigan for students to create teen-led traffic safety campaigns aimed at educating their fellow classmates. Following a series of campaign activities, participating schools will be eligible to send students to a free hands-on driving clinic with professional driving instructors. During the half-day Ride & Drive events, students will learn key skills and gain experience in the areas that contribute to more than 60 percent of teen crashes, including: hazard recognition, vehicle handling, speed and space management, distracted, and impaired driving.

The library’s promotion of literacy in the past has included the READ Like a Rockstar project, which was designed to use art and music to peak teenager’s interests, “hooking” them into reading books purchased with grant funds.

Through student produced videos and READ guitar promotions, teens were introduced to novels that raise awareness about issues facing them today – addiction, isolation belonging, and family and cultural differences.

Student videos that highlghted the three key novels were aired over the school television network, while individual students, groups and even staff members created READ guitars that were displayed throughout the school, promoting reading and the selected titles.

In literature and other classes, students circulated The Great Michigan READ selection, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, as well as the Saginaw One Community, One Book title, Beautiful Boy, and its companion novel, Tweak.

Funding for this project was provided by The Michigan Humanities Council, The Saginaw Community Foundation, Swan Valley High School Media Center, and Swan Valley Schools.

In addition to its award from AASL, in 2010, the Library of Michigan and the Library of Michigan Foundation awarded the library 2010 Citation for Excellence Award.

In an article in the Saginaw News, following the receipt of the award, Wejrowski summed up her feelings by saying, “The library is the center and the hub of the school. This award is not just about the library. It’s about the whole school. Without the teachers and community support, then maybe our students wouldn’t participate on the high level they do.”

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