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Hill Libraries Get Upgrade

On the south side of a quiet square just a few blocks east of Union Station, the red doors of the Peabody Early Childhood Center look across the street toward Revolutionary War Gen. Nathanael Greene, his frozen finger forever pointing up Massachusetts Avenue as he sits astride his horse.

Up four flights of stairs from those red doors is Peabody’s library. In one corner, about 20 preschool-aged children sit cross-legged while a librarian reads to them. Behind them, abstract pencil drawings sit on short tables in front of green and orange chairs. The class’s teacher, in white shirt and bow tie, pecks at the keyboard of a new Mac in a small computer lab tucked behind a yellow-painted restroom. A discreetly placed sign urges patience.

“Renovations will be completed soon,” it promises.

The “renovations” come courtesy of the School Libraries Project, an organization that for the past two years has been working to renovate and upgrade the libraries of eight public schools in the Capitol Hill area. Today it will celebrate the completed renovation of five school libraries (three were completed last year) with a brief ceremony at Peabody beginning at 9:30 a.m. Mayor Adrian Fenty will attend, as will D.C. Public Schools Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

Also on hand will be Todd Cymrot, a former D.C. charter school teacher who now works as the property manager for his family’s real estate business. He is the co-chair of the project along with Margaret Wells, an Environmental Protection Agency employee who works on Superfund sites and is a former PTA president. [IMGCAP(1)]

Cymrot said making school libraries attractive and useable is vital for public schools in the gentrifying Capitol Hill neighborhood, where new families increasingly have the resources to send their children to private, charter or Catholic schools if they feel the public schools aren’t up to par. A library in disrepair, Cymrot said, “sends a message that not much value is placed on education.”

Peabody is part of the D.C. Public Schools’ Capitol Hill Cluster, consisting of three campuses serving children from age 3 to eighth grade. The three schools that make up the cluster — Peabody, Watkins Elementary and Stuart-Hobson Middle School — are all beneficiaries of the School Libraries Project. Cymrot said the library at Peabody was an intimidating and underused space before its renovation.

“It was very chaotic, dark and cluttered,” Cymrot said. “It was hot — there was no air conditioning — and there was no working bathroom. Remember, this is a school for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds.”

The project’s construction firm tripled the amount of lights in the library and dropped them lower to the ground. Wooden support beams were painted their present green color. Walls constructed with canvases divided the library into smaller, less-intimidating spaces. A bathroom was installed, large enough to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations. A computer lab was established — even though the young students would have little use for it — mostly to entice the teachers to stay within earshot of the children while they were in the librarians’ care.

“The practice [before] had been to just dump the kids off,” Cymrot said.

Brandon Eatman, in his third year as principal of the Capitol Hill Cluster, described the library renovations as “a tremendous asset to the school.”

“It’s a shot in the arm,” he said, “just what we needed.”

Eatman said the renovations have left an impression on the students who now use the libraries more than ever.

“During recess time, we have an increased number of students who prefer to stay in the library and read,” he said. “We see students who, during school, would rather do library-related activities, like doing research or working on homework, rather than doing things they can do at home, like playing.”

The schools participating in the programs had some conditions they had to meet. Eatman, for example, was required to hire full-time librarians to staff each of the Cluster’s three campuses — a relative rarity in D.C. public schools.

“I’m a man of my word,” Eatman said. “When Todd came in and told me I’d need to hire three full-time librarians, I said I’d do it.”

The entire cost of the project is about $2.48 million, or roughly $310,000 for each of the eight school libraries being renovated. Of that, about $210,000 is “hard construction costs,” Cymrot said, while the remaining $100,000 goes for “books and technology.” About half the money for the project is funded by the government: A quarter comes from a Congressionally appropriated grant for D.C. public school library renovation, with another quarter coming from D.C. government matching funds. The rest of the funds were private donations, including $400,000 from individuals. PNC donated $25,000, as did Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

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