Congratulations to Dumbarton Elementary School! It’s the first elementary school ever to win the Virginia Association of School Librarians Library of the Year award. The faculty and implementation of best practices and 21st-century learning techniques make this elementary school and its library stand above the rest.
“One of the biggest reasons Dumbarton continuously achieves outstanding academic levels and accolades is because the faculty here is very passionate,” says Dumbarton Principal Eileen Traveline. “We also set high standards and expectations. We expect a certain level of behavior and require a high level of academic performance from all of our students.”
Dumbarton Elementary has a diverse student population, and English is a second language for more than a quarter of its students. Meeting English Second Language (ESL) and SOL requirements at a time when school funds are shrinking across the nation takes creativity and progressive leadership. Traveline is a master at negotiating business and community partnerships, and encourages her staff to think creatively. So when Dumbarton Librarian Suzanna Panter approached Traveline about bringing the library into the 21st century, Traveline was behind her all the way.
The principal recalls, “Suzanna had a vision, and I told her I would support her. We will do what it takes to keep moving toward 21st-century skills and learning.”
Transforming the library and its offerings began with a facelift for the space and an overhaul of the collection. The next phase of Panter’s vision involved incorporating projects to hone “21st-century skills” – collaboration, communication, technology, research and problem solving. Also on her agenda: give students open access to the library and get involved in teachers’ planning processes.
“When I first arrived here, the library felt dark and plain. The lack of windows and decoration and signage on the large white walls gave the library an institutional or sterile appearance. It wasn’t a place you would want to spend time,” says Panter. But even more urgent than the desired cosmetic changes was the desperate need for up-to-date books and resources – especially for ESL students.
Luckily, the funding for the project came in the form of a Title I Grant via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Title I Grants provide funding to help eligible organizations improve teaching and learning for students most at risk of failing to meet state standards and to close the achievement gap. It was the opportunity of a lifetime for Panter – her chance to build an entire collection. She ordered 9,000 new titles, and she and her volunteers transformed the dark space into a welcoming and colorful environment with matching furniture and shelves and creative cutouts on the once-bare walls. Chairs and tables on wheels give the space a flexible layout.
Uncertain how to approach her ESL students’ needs, Panter started a committee with other school librarians within the district. Working together, they determined what resources would best serve ESL students. “Thankfully, the Henrico School Board recognized our needs and gave us funds to purchase SOL-based non-fiction books that would help our ESL students learn to read,” says Panter.
Today the elementary library has over 15,000 titles and is considered “‘an exemplary collection,’ which is 25 books or more per student, which is very rare,” says Panter. Circulations are almost 7,000 a month – impressive for a school of 600 students.
Information Literacy – a Priority at Dumbarton Elementary Library
Understanding how to use information resources begins early at Dumbarton. Panter explains, “Everyone today is bombarded with so much information. Kids don’t know how to filter the information they’re getting. One of the biggest roles of libraries today is about getting kids to understand that everything coming to them is not necessarily the truth or the ‘be all and end all.’”
At Dumbarton, students are asked to evaluate all the resources available before they use them. They learn about online databases and other information sources, and how to cite them. “We work really hard, starting as early as the second grade, to help them understand the difference between an authoritative source and one that is not. Ultimately, we want to make sure our students have a solid information literacy foundation before they get to middle school.”
Key to Success: Teacher-Librarian Collaboration
It was Dumbarton’s dedication to implementing national best practices that got the attention of the Virginia Association of School Librarians. “In Henrico County and across the nation, teacher and librarian collaboration in the library is considered the best practice,” says Panter. “In that scenario, I am the information specialist. I help bring the technology and resources to the project, making it a richer experience for the students.”
At Dumbarton, a library assistant helps students find books and check them out. “What’s really great about Henrico County is they really understand the library assistant’s role. It means school librarians like me can focus on co-teaching and collecting and making the students’ experience richer. Not all the other counties are dedicated to this best practice.”
Panter continues, “We are what a cutting-edge research model looks like. This is the type of library that impacts schools and the students’ desire to read. It impacts test scores and the whole child because they are free to explore for themselves. This is the type of library that impacts the culture of a school and nurtures a student’s love of reading. This model positively influences test scores as well as the whole child because it allows students to freely explore their interests.”
Dumbarton’s experience is mirrored in data from school libraries across the country. According to a recent study*:
- The presence of a certified/licensed librarian who teaches students how to find and use information and provides reading support results in higher student reading achievement.
- Student access to the school library – measured by the number of hours the library is open – is significantly related to standardized reading test scores at elementary, middle and high school levels.
- As the staffing, collections and funding of school library programs incrementally increase, reading scores also rise.
Bringing the librarian into the teacher planning process and allowing students flexible and open access to the library is crucial. “If the teacher is really having a hard time getting something across to the kids, she can come to me as a resource. We collaborate and figure out how we can do it differently. Maybe we can we do a hands-on project or incorporate technology in a way that resonates with the students,” says Panter. This means classes can come to the library at the point of need, which allows students to grow and stretch their understanding of concepts.
Co-Teaching in Action
An outstanding example of co-teaching in action at Dumbarton was documented in a recent edition of the American Association of School Librarians publication Knowledge Quest. In the article, Panter and Dumbarton fourth-grade teacher Rebecca L. Kelley explain in detail a project that brought the cultures of Virginia’s first inhabitants alive for students.
The students were tasked to create their own tribe and prove to a mock Virginia Council on Indians that they, the Gv-he, existed in Virginia throughout time. (Gv-he is a Cherokee word for ‘wildcat,’ which happens to be the Dumbarton Elementary School mascot.) The outstanding materials and enthusiasm generated by the students and documented in the publication is a testament to the collaboration process and the power of 21st-century thinking.
What’s Next for Dumbarton Elementary?
“The whole school will focus on problem-solving and critical thinking next year,” says Principal Traveline. She’s also currently working on an after-school partnership with the local YMCA.
Panter hopes to continue to educate the public about Dumbarton’s successful program. “I’d like for more people to see the whole picture – to understand that librarians can be a resource and tool for teachers and students, and to know this program can work no matter your school’s makeup.”
Dumbarton officials will receive the Library of the Year award at the Virginia Association of School Librarians Conference in Hampton, Virginia, on November 9, 2012. Visit Henrico.com to learn more about outstanding educational opportunities in Henrico County.
* Source: “School Library Impact Studies,” 2011. Denver, CO: Library Research Service (accessed March 1, 2011).