April 12, 2002
Lindbergh Middle School's Reading Room is the nation's most improved library serving young people, according to a recent edition of School Library Journal, a national publication for school librarians. The journal's Giant Step award, including a $10,000 prize, was awarded to the North Long Beach school in honor of its librarian, Helen Cox. She took over the library six years ago, transforming a dusty, rundown room into a welcoming place that students love to visit.
Circulation figures have climbed steadily at the Reading Room. During the 1999-2000 school year, book circulation doubled compared to the previous year. In 2000-01, circulation increased from 6,000 books to more than 9,000. Lindbergh posted the largest gains recently on the state Academic Performance Index among the middle schools in the district. The school's achievement grew by 72 API points, far beyond its target of 17 points, and it showed significant gains in reading.
The library's voluntary Distinguished Scholars project attracts students to the library on their own time, where they tackle writing and math assignments. Cox works with other teachers to make sure students attain high academic standards while learning to access, evaluate and use information in the library.
The physical layout of the library is "the next best thing to a Barnes & Noble," according to the journal. Comfortable couches and velvet-upholstered chairs are everywhere. The decor includes mobiles, banners, posters, calligraphy, teddy bears, folk art from around the world, and of course lots of books.
"I kept thinking, why is it that when you go into a bookstore, the books are shouting at you to be picked up? You can't stay away from the materials. They're absolutely seductive," Cox said. She closed the library for four months while she scrubbed and polished, weeded out outdated books and solicited donations to build an impressive, reorganized collection. The former art teacher created 12 stained-glass windowpanes for the library's double doors. Each pane took 10 hours to complete. She reupholstered chairs. Her husband refinished chessboards and tables they found at thrift shops. She brought in a discarded Persian rug, some leather swivel chairs and other items that she refurbished.
She wants students who are accustomed to doing without to feel rich and nurtured while they are in the library.
Cox has attracted funding from several local businesses, individuals and foundations, including the Earl B. and Loraine H. Miller Foundation, Edison International, the National American Insurance Company of California, Verizon and Toyota Manufacturing.
The library also was featured recently as the "best that California has to offer" in Good Ideas, published by the California School Library Association. And Cox has developed a popular brochure entitled "How to Raise a Scholar," which includes college prep advice and wisdom from local parents, teachers and students. Extra copies of the brochure were printed and shared with other middle schools in the Long Beach Unified School District, thanks to Memorial Medical Center.
"What can we learn from Cox?" the nationally published School Library Journal asked. "Perhaps she would tell us not to let a lack of money be an excuse for poor quality. She might inspire us to use our creativity and some elbow grease to create an environment where young people can feel welcome and comfortable, where reading and scholarly pursuits are valued. She might urge us to have the highest expectations for our students. She would point to the sign hanging over the door to the library, the one that proudly proclaims, "The Reading Room: Where Scholars Are Born."