This might be an odd way to begin a success story, but success it is. The central figures are Jackson, a genial and deeply persistent educator, and Principal Rahman Branch, who is determined to bring academic rigor to a school that has seen multiple waves of federally mandated restructuring because of poor performance.
The generally accepted standard for school libraries is 11 books for each of Ballou's 1,104 students. Yet until recently, the school had no functioning library, much less a librarian. Students say the room was a dimly lit dead zone with moldy carpeting and sadly outdated books (the encyclopedia collection was from 1974). It was more of a place to hide out, they said, than to read.
It was consistent with the generally dismal condition of the 50-year-old Ward 8 building, a tired, redbrick structure touched only at the margins by the $1 billion wave of modernization and reconstruction that transformed many schools under former mayor Adrian M. Fenty. The city's second-largest high school is not scheduled for a full makeover until 2014. ("Can you help me kick and scream about that travesty?" Branch asked.)
The library turnaround began in spring 2009 when Branch recruited Jackson, 40, a 1986 Ballou graduate who'd won raves for her work as a librarian at nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary. Branch also hired a "resource development" director, Ruth Jones, to marshal private contributions to the school. Donations have included a $600,000 anonymous gift, most of which was earmarked for college scholarships. But some went toward new library furniture. The school system's building modernization office upgraded the lighting and other systems.
The result is a small but radiant sanctuary. Branch and Jackson wanted to give the room a college campus ambience, so in addition to the standard furniture, they added a "chill zone" with overstuffed couches and chairs, where students can read, work on a laptop or stretch out and close their eyes for a few minutes.
The room has become a locus of school community life, drawing a lunchtime contingent of students who prefer it to the often chaotic cafeteria and gym. To lure them in and get them reading, Jackson has amped up the magazine collection, adding ESPN and O, as well as more traditional offerings such as Newsweek and National Geographic. She keeps the room open until 6:30 p.m. each day, and it is the now the location for a book club, chess club, poetry club and monthly black cinema club, which has screened films ranging from "Birth of a Nation" to "Shaft." Students with toddlers in the school's day-care center get a weekly story time period.