How do you turn students into readers? At Alpha Learning Academy, by turning a classroom into a library
BY ROGER MOONEY
ORLANDO, Florida – Shakelia Henderson sat behind the desk inside a classroom that was recently converted into a library and nodded at the shelves full of books that lined the walls.
“This,” she said, “is the beginning of a literacy journey that’s going to make our kids stronger. I really do believe that.”
Henderson just completed her fourth year as principal at Alpha Learning Academy in Orlando, a K-5 private school. The majority of the 139 students attend with the help of education choice scholarships administered by Step Up For Students.
Henderson, who has been in education for nearly 25 years, is keenly aware of the role reading plays in a child’s learning. A student who struggles to read is more likely to struggle in other subjects.
“It’s important for students to engage with books to become strong readers, because reading is the foundation of all the subject areas,” said Henderson, an English major in college who taught language arts before moving into the administrative side of education.
She was aware ALA did not have a library when she became the principal and made it her mission to correct that. It took three years to get the project rolling and almost another year to convert a classroom into a library, obtain books and add labels to each so they can be filed probably and monitored through the checkout system.
The library opened May 1 with six ribbon-cutting ceremonies – one for each grade.
Naasir Laird, who enters the second grade in August, said he was “so excited” when he found out his school was getting a library.
“I like that we can read books, and we can all have fun reading them,” he said. “It’s really fun when I come here.”
Naasir’s mom, Toccara West, is equally thrilled.
“He loves going to the library,” she said, adding her son’s reading improved during the first month the library was open.
West was among the army of ALA parents who volunteered to turn what was once a classroom used for art and Spanish into one filled with 10 bookcases. Chairs dot the room, spaced far enough apart so students can have a little privacy when they sit and read. The room is decorated with a superhero theme as voted on by the students.
Nearly all the books are used and donated, and each had to be labeled so they could be scanned into Booksource, a computerized management tool. It was a time-consuming labor of love for the parents who lugged home boxes of books to be labeled.
Booksource allows Henderson and Ashlei James, ALA’s administrative assistant and assistant librarian, to check the books in and out and monitor what the children are reading. “The Wild Robot” quickly emerged as a favorite, so Henderson and James recognized the need to obtain more books on robots.
Historically, ALA students have underperformed in reading. The school addresses that with Wilson Language Training. But Henderson feels the need to go beyond that, to make reading a force of habit for as many students as possible. She hopes having a room filled with books of all topics accessible to all the students will be the first bricks of a foundation needed for academic success.
“In addition to what students are assigned to read by their teachers, I also want the students to fall in love with the aesthetic feel of reading and read what they want for their pleasure,” Henderson said. “And I also want them to build their home libraries. We know the more a child reads, the better reader they become.”
The ALA library contains books on Martin Luther King Jr. and Black history. Books on science and technology. Books on superheroes and sports. Bookcases are labeled by grade, but there is one designated for advanced readers. That’s where DeMarko Avant found “Star Wars: The Legends of Luke Skywalker.”
DeMarko, who is headed to the fifth grade, said he visits the library often, sometimes as much as three times a week. He reads at home, he said, usually before bedtime and usually about Star Wars or the Ninja Mutant Turtles or The Flash.
“I like superhero books,” he said.
Ashlei Jameses’ daughter Nhyla, who starts the third grade in August, said she loves reading about Black history, especially Ruby Bridges, a pillar of the civil rights movement who famously integrated an elementary school in New Orleans when she was 6.
“It is really important for me for her to have this (library) experience in a school that she goes to,” Ashlei James said.
James remembered visiting a bookstore for the first time when she was in middle school. She couldn’t believe there was a store dedicated solely to books. She feels children today are missing out on the experience of reading books and visiting bookstores and libraries.
“I feel like in this day and age, kids know how to do everything on phones, on computers. They know all that. To me, bringing them back to actually sitting down and reading a book, that’s good stock,” she said. “You can’t get away from that.”
“There’s nothing like a book,” she said. “I think our children are very used to using their devices, their phones, iPads and tablets. They work wonders, but the old fashioned, having a book in your hand, nothing replaces that, in my opinion.
“This (library) has a ton of potential. I am very proud. In my career, this is in top-three. This is monumental and it has impacted the lives of our children immediately.
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.