Harbor Creek High library transformed into ‘relevant, inclusive, engaging’ place

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by Matthew Rink, courtesy of GoErie.com

When Chris Peters became Harborcreek High School’s (PA) librarian this year, she wanted to see through an idea to make the space “relevant” to tech-savvy teens who had little use for the encyclopedias.

With a team of volunteers, Peters unscrewed the wooden bookshelves anchored to the cement floors. They took every book off every shelf. They bought Keurig coffeemakers and K-cups, sofas and rocking chairs, a record player and vinyl records. They installed a black chalkboard and painted a few walls orange, one of the school’s colors. A local contractor lent his time and skills to transform old shelves into tables.

That wasn’t all.  Peters turned one area into a makerspace where kids tinker and create. And she halved the librarian’s office to make a kitchen for café.

Some of it, she admits, was done without the permission of the maintenance personnel. But her vision in its entirety has come with overwhelming support from fellow teachers, staff members, administrators and school board members.

Peters, an elementary school teacher in the district for 24 years and an elementary librarian the last four, came to the high school library with grand plans.

“Hook, line and sinker,” she said about the impetus for her idea. “I want to get kids in here. If they’re in here, then they can be taking advantage of all the resources we have. You know, my goal for this is that they would read more because I firmly believe that the more you read the smarter you are.”

Some of it, she admits, was done without the permission of the maintenance personnel. But her vision in its entirety has come with overwhelming support from fellow teachers, staff members, administrators and school board members.  Peters, an elementary school teacher in the district for 24 years and an elementary librarian the last four, came to the high school library with grand plans.

“Hook, line and sinker,” she said about the impetus for her idea. “I want to get kids in here. If they’re in here, then they can be taking advantage of all the resources we have. You know, my goal for this is that they would read more because I firmly believe that the more you read the smarter you are.”

At a time in life when the pressures of the world can stress and strain students, the library, Peters thought, could be a place to unwind, relax and engage others in friendly conversation or a game of checkers.

And it also could serve as a place of inclusiveness.

That’s why Peters, in coordination with friend and learning support teacher Amy Vande Merwe, started the “Common Ground Café.” Vande Merwe’s special-needs students take and fill orders, take stock of inventory and count the money that students, teachers and staff members pay for cups of coffee, iced frappes and other beverages. What used to be a place to check out and turn in library books now doubles as the café counter. Students Gia Flood, Isaiah Langer-Williamson, Seth Brock, Manny Grandinetti and Justin Legenzoff run the business, the profits from which will one day go toward post-secondary scholarships for special-needs students.

Grandinetti, an eighth-grader at the junior high, called it “her favorite place.” Grandinetti, 13, has wanted a job since she was 4.

Legenzoff only came to the school library to check out books before this year. Now he spends mornings meeting other students, making friends and gaining “real-world experience,” he said  “Students come in, come out and I’m just taking orders for coffee, any kind of beverage,” Legenzoff, an 18-year-old senior, said. “I like seeing their faces. It’s a good work opportunity for students.”

Flood said making friends is her favorite part of her job at the Common Ground Café.  “I always make new friends every day,” Flood, a 17-year-old senior, said. “I also like calling out people’s names.”

Plus, the job is important.  “Doesn’t everyone need coffee?” Flood joked.

Vande Merwe, the learning support teacher, said that in previous years her students would sell school supplies and snacks from a cart they pushed up and down the hallways. The café has given them a better opportunity to learn essential workplace skills and meet new people.

“I think their work ethic is amazing,” she said. “Every day every one of these kids come in and no one’s ever grouchy. They always come in with a smile on their face. They’re ready to work, they’re happy to be here. Their self-esteem has gone up, you know. Academically, handling the money and handling the orders, having a system in place, it’s all very good for them.”

The café is open all school day, with the exception of lunch hours. Peters said she didn’t want to compete with the school cafeteria.

Peters knows that the space she and the many volunteers that helped her have created isn’t the conventional library. You won’t find Peters “shushing” any of the students or signaling to them, with an index finger against her lips, to be quiet.

But it’s also not a free-for-all. She has a strict no-cell-phone policy. If she sees a student with a phone she takes it and either makes the student do a chore or wait until they leave the library to get it back. Only when they are using their phones for class work are they permitted.

So far, the transformation is paying off.  Senior Ryan Scott, 18, designed logos for the café and library that are on T-shirts, aprons and signs.

“We saw a definite increase in attendance, Scott said. “Everyone seems to be pleased to be here. They’re happy with getting their coffee and talking with their friends. Just the amount of people here in the morning, I’d say probably doubled, tripled.”

The other day, Peters watched as older students talked with kids from the junior high while sitting in the library. The older students were asking them questions about sports and school.

“I’ve seen senior high kids helping the junior high kids with their work, which is really cool because it’s not so segregated anymore,” Peters said. “So we have kids in here, seven to 12, all ages, all abilities, all just kind of meshed together with this whole community kind of feeling, which I love.”