It was a mid-week school day, with huge, dramatic cloud formations looming ominously over the playground, but, judging from the smiles on everyone’s faces and the exuberant energy in the air, it wasn’t a typical Hump Day at Burnett Elementary School. The staff and students had a special reason to celebrate– and a lot for which to be thankful.
Burnett, located at 565 E. Hill St., just west of Signal Hill, is the second-oldest public school in Long Beach, and its library had just become the recipient of a makeover, courtesy of a grant provided by the Target Corporation and The Heart of America Foundation.
The library transformation included all new carpet, paint, bookshelves, tables, chairs, fixtures and artwork in a cohesive design. The library received approximately 2,000 new books, 10 iPads and an interactive whiteboard, as well as books for parents. Furthermore, each student received seven new books, a book bag, and reading-support supplies. The grant also includes a Meals for Minds program through which Burnett families, the vast majority of whom are low-income, will receive 30 pounds of food per pupil, and that distribution will continue throughout the year on a monthly basis.
Last Wednesday’s celebration began with a ribbon-cutting in the school’s freshly redone library, after which students were released an hour early so that their parents could meet them and pick up their new books and food.
Though the sky was theatrically overcast, the only truly threatening cloud hanging over the school that afternoon was what had been the subject of a media event the day before. Long Beach Unified School District Superintendent Christopher Steinhauser, Cal State University-Long Beach President F. King Alexander and Long Beach City College Superintendent-President Eloy Ortiz-Oakley had conducted a press conference Tuesday, during which the three leaders warned of the dire consequences on education if voters in November don’t approve Proposition 30. If it is indeed passed, Prop 30, also known as The Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act, will increase personal state income tax on annual earnings over $250,000 for seven years and raise sales and use tax by one-fourth of a cent for four years. Steinhauser, who indicated that the school district has had to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from its budget in the last few years, said the Board of Education will have to minimize or altogether eliminate every LBUSD program if Prop 30 is not approved by voters and that the district will receive an immediate reduction of $435 per student.
Amidst those impending and drastic cuts, Burnett’s library makeover and its accompanying benefits clearly provided a gleam of sunshine for the school’s staff.
Barbara Alvarez has been teaching at the school since 2000. She taught second grade for the majority of those years, during which time she had 20 students in each year’s class, but she switched to third grade amidst the vast cutbacks and changes made in the state and the school district in the last few academic years. She now has 30 pupils in her classroom. “This opportunity that Burnett’s been granted gives us a new beginning, not only to students, but to staff at Burnett,” she said. “With all the cuts to education, this allows Burnett to look at education through a new lens. It’s made me look at things differently. Even though we’re gettting cut, there are still people out there identifying the need and finding funds to do something like this.”
Griselda Rodriguez, who teaches a second-grade Excel class and has also been at the school for 12 years, sees a long-term benefit that the grant will have on the students’ character development. “I think this whole program and whole event bring hope to the kids,” Rodriguez said. “It brings a sense of community to the school. They see generosity, and it teaches them to be generous to others.”
Mary McCarthy has been the school’s librarian since early 1997, and although she was visibly and admittedly delighted by the makeover, she expressed some mixed emotions. “First of all, I have many wonderful memories of the old library. Miss [Heather] Hall (a Burnett teacher) had created an amazing mural that was very hard to say goodbye to,” McCarthy said. “But overall the library had the feel of a bygone era. The colors were drab, and everything was showing signs of age and wear and tear. The collection was in dire straits. Our library is very busy, and the books are used heavily. I compared our books to the Velveteen Rabbit. They were showing signs of being very well loved. On the one hand, that made those books very precious to me, but I knew that every child deserves a fresh experience with books that are in good shape.”
McCarthy explained that the library’s collection had been shrinking from sheer use and that, because of cutbacks, libraries in general have been neglected in recent years. “I am thrilled that our students and teachers will have access to new books, current technology and an inviting, invigorating space to explore their interests,” she said, noting that the majority of Burnett’s students receive free or reduced-price lunches, indicating the economic concerns of that community. “The new library will build enthusiasm for reading and research. Access to new resources will allow students to be more effective in pursuit of their interests and studies. Availability of recent technology will help our students who have limited access to technology in their homes.”
During the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Burnett principal Lucy Salazar thanked all those involved in the project, including the dozens of Target employee volunteers, who were at the event, decked out in red shirts. “This gift to Burnett today is multi-faceted,” she told those in attendance in the library, where there was standing-room only. “It’s not just about the beautiful, inspiring space we’re in right now. It’s also about the gift of the books that are being donated to the library. So, it’s not just: the furniture; the beautiful shelving; the wonderful, colorful paint. It’s the iPads and the fabulous, state-of-the-art Smart Board that we will have. But it also extends beyond the four walls of the library.”
Salazar mentioned that the most special part of the project to her is the Meals for Minds program, which is being co-organized by LA Regional Food Bank. “The boys and girls will have an enhanced home library, but they will also not have to worry about food,” she said.
Outside the library that day were numerous tables, draped with red tablecloths and stacked with boxes upon boxes of food, including cereal and canned vegetables and fruit. This would be the first day of many that Burnett families could stock up on necessary staples to fill their pantries and provide their children with nourishment so that they would be prepared to focus on learning each school day. It was clear that the organizers behind this event understood that hungry stomachs can’t foster hungry minds.
And now, equipped with new books and the latest technology, McCarthy is a librarian who’s ready for those eager, young scholars.
“The new, vibrant space will be alive with the love of learning,” McCarthy said. “The library has always been the heart of the school, and now it has an infusion of energy.”