Stripping the school library back to books has transformed the educational results at one Melbourne school. Sometimes you just need to read quietly.
One of the surest signs of success, when principal Paul Schwartz unveiled the new-look library at Melton West’s Wedge Park Primary School, was the arrival of a group of students from last year’s Grade 6. “They’ve gone to the high school, but they came back to check it out because they’d heard so much about it from their siblings,” he says.
A passionate reader, Paul wanted to share that joy with his students. He firmly believes, and all the evidence shows, that a hunger for page-turners leads to improved educational outcomes across the board.
“Our school’s in a low socio-economic area, so kids don’t always get access to the best books,” he notes. “So I want to make sure they get that. Books that create curiosity, that show them the world and allow them to use their imagination. Reading allows you to explore or do anything.”
Those goals are at the heart of the school’s mission statement, and they aligned perfectly with the ambitions of new hire, library technician Nicole Donahue. “Her understanding and direction was in line with the leadership team,” Paul says. “It was like, ‘This is going to be a really seamless approach, because we’re all heading in the right direction’.”
They started from scratch, redesigning the space from the ground up. That meant getting rid of the existing bookshelves and furniture. But waste not, want not, they didn’t go to the tip. Quite the opposite. “We put all the old stuff into classroom libraries, and then purchased new library furniture that allows you to have better access to the books,” Paul says. “We’ve actually brought in more furniture, but the library looks and feels bigger.”
The Wedge Park students had ownership of the process. In conjunction with the school and with library building experts, they were involved in early walk throughs aimed at sparking bright ideas, and they followed through with the designers by answering detailed surveys. “We used their feedback to actually create some guidelines around the use of the library,” Paul says. “There really is student ownership of the space.”
“Technology is everywhere we go. We just wanted to create a space where it wasn’t there. To re-establish that love for books again.”
What didn’t make the cut was banks and banks of computers, beyond a couple designated for cataloguing, to encourage quiet, focused time. “Technology is everywhere we go. We just wanted to create a space where it wasn’t there. To re-establish that love for books again.”
Paul is no luddite. Students can still borrow online books if they so wish via Melton Library, but that happens in class time. In the library, it’s all about the original format. And they’ve invested heavily, buying thousands of new books, actively encouraging tips from the kids. “We’re making sure that it’s the heartbeat of the school.”
And that doesn’t stop (or start) when the bell rings. Parents are encouraged to come in and read with their toddlers while dropping older siblings off. The plan is to welcome the community in after hours too, so that everyone can share the reading bug. Paul made sure it’s a comfy and inviting space, as well as an educational place that teaches students the ropes of how libraries work before they head up to high school or on to university.
It’s working. Borrowing numbers have exploded and, between lockdowns, kids were knocking on the doors at recess. And they’re helping each other out, too.
“We’re a school of 950 kids and we’ve got 42 grades using our library throughout the week, so, at any time, there’s a junior grade and senior grade in there,” Paul says. “The older kids are modelling how to use a library to the younger kids, and a little kid can be reading to the older kids. It really plays on your heart. It’s amazing to see.”