Original URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2004/03/12/BAGEO5J3FI1.DTL

Rise, fall of middle school library
San Francisco Chronicle
Friday, March 12, 2004
Simone Sebastian, Chronicle Staff Writer

2004 San Francisco Chronicle

New, state-of-the-art facility serving impoverished students set to close


When former schoolteacher Grace Murphy Jenkins stepped into her new position last year heading up the brand-new library at Lovonya DeJean Middle School in Richmond, she couldn't contain her amazement.

The library had bright lights and plenty of windows. It had shelf after shelf of new books with no pen marks or torn pages. An internal phone network allowed her to call any classroom in the school to find out which books students needed for research projects. There were even enough computers for an entire class of students to be online at once.

But the amazement Jenkins felt then could not compare to her shock when she learned that the West Contra Costa Unified School District's board had voted Monday night to board up the library to help save $16.5 million next fall.

"I can't tell you how much work went into opening this up. We want a chance to see the good that this library can do," Jenkins said. "Many of our children don't have access to the public library. They need to know literature can be an enjoyable activity, that there's a joy to learning. This library is the best way to show them that."

The library's future was thrown into doubt last week, when voters turned down a parcel tax that would have generated $7.5 million a year for the school district. What followed was unprecedented in California, as the school board voted to abolish the sports program, close all the district's libraries, do away with elementary school music classes and lay off counselors.

It was just six years ago that voters decided to pay for DeJean Middle School and its library, as they approved a bond that still costs property owners $17 for every $100,000 in assessed value. The district decided to build near downtown Richmond in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Contra Costa County, where a state-of-the-art library could help educators improve student literacy.

Seven months after the library's opening, Jenkins said she doesn't need test results to prove how much children have been helped.

"Students don't have to be forced to come to this library. Look around --

none of them are rushing to get out of here," Jenkins said from her post behind the checkout desk as the clock approached the final bell.

Students in Acacia Allen's sixth-grade class approached with their books, some to check out, many to renew.

They've been talking about the library's closing in class all week, brainstorming ways to keep it open. One student suggested they ask their parents to volunteer their time to work in the library.

"They have so many questions. They're scared they won't be able to get books," Allen said. Her students were listening to Jenkins read "Sukey and the Mermaid," a fairytale about an overworked young girl who discovers an undersea kingdom.

"It's so important for these kids," Allen said. "For a lot of them, it's their only access to books. We already have so many disadvantages out here. It's too nice a library for it not to be used."

D'marce Hutcherson, 11, said he was excited about the new library when he started attending DeJean Middle School last year. The bookshelves are much bigger, he said, so he doesn't have to crouch down to search through the books the way he did at his old school.

"If the library closes, we're not going to have books to read," D'marce said. "We won't be able to do the research we need to do. We won't be able to have book fairs like we did."

The sixth-grader said he's been reading more since his class started coming to the school library every week. Right now, he's reading "Places I Never Meant to Be," a collection of short stories edited by Judy Blume. He made sure Jenkins renewed it yesterday, because he has a few more pages to read. But that didn't keep him from checking out another book, a biography about baseball legend Babe Ruth.

D'marce is into sports, and those cuts are concerning him, too. He hopes to play basketball in college, but he believes a well-rounded middle school education is necessary to get him there.

"You need sports to get a scholarship and you need books to get into college," he said.

School Vice Principal Rachel Bartlett-Preston couldn't agree more. She calls the library "the hub of the school" and its closing "an atrocity."

She said she knows the school district is in a financial bind, and she expected to lose school counselors. But when she got word that the doors to her brand-new library would be closed, she said, "it took me by surprise."

"This isn't cost-effective," Bartlett-Preston said, explaining that the library "is in the process of being built."

The barely broken-in tables, encyclopedias and chairs could go unused. The bookshelves are hardly half-full, and new books are still on the way.

Bartlett-Preston feels it's a school's responsibility to teach children how to navigate through a world of information. That is particularly important in a school where many children don't have a computer at home or a way to get to the public library, she said.

"Accessing information is what our lives are about," Bartlett-Preston said. "Children need to be taught how to do that, and that's what we're here to do. You can't cut someone off at the knees. But that's exactly what is happening to this group of students."

E-mail Simone Sebastian at sisebastian@sfchronicle.com.