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Librarian at D.C.'s Ballou High scrambles for books

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2011; 6:38 PM

The literature section of Melissa Jackson's library at Ballou Senior High School had 63 books one morning last week, not enough to fill five small shelves. In the area marked "pure science," there were 77 volumes.

This is not because the students at the Southeast Washington school had scoured the stacks and checked almost everything out. Ballou's entire collection consists of 1,185 books, about one per kid. "What you see is what we have," Jackson said. "Keep in mind, this is a high school. We should be flooded with books."

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 Students say the room was a dimly lit dead zone with moldy carpeting and sadly outdated books (the encyclopedia collection was from 1974).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.

"This library used to be a hot mess," senior Tiesha Hines said. "No books, no computers, no tables."

Sophomore Tiffany Adams said most students were scarcely aware that there was a library at Ballou until this year. Now, she said, "we come here and get our work done."

The mission is a personal one for Jackson, who is saddened at how Ballou has declined since her student days. She grew up in Southeast, the daughter of a "pieman" who delivered fresh pies for Mrs. Smith's. Her mother managed a dress shop. There were books in the house - her favorite as a child was Judy Blume's "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret."

Her father insisted that the family watch "60 Minutes" every week. "It was his way of getting us to know there was a wider world out there," she said. After Ballou and the University of the District of Columbia (and a master's degree at the University of Maryland), she spent 17 years as an early childhood teacher at Meyer Elementary.

But Jackson always nursed a desire to be a librarian. When Branch called, she knew what she needed to do.

"Ballou is where I should be," she said.

Jackson is a compulsive hugger who mills constantly among teachers and their classes, consulting on research projects. One morning last week it was a PowerPoint presentation exploring "The Chemistry of Making Ice Cream Without an Ice Cream Maker." She helped another girl spellcheck her scholarship application, including "procrastinate."

"You okay?" she asks. It's her default greeting for students coming through her door. It's more than small talk at Ballou, where 85 percent of the students come from families that meet income guidelines for federally subsidized lunches. Issues at home or on the streets often play out in the classroom.

"I haven't seen you for two days," she said to one ninth-grader who walked in with a big, red binder. He said that his mother had kept him home because he'd been beaten up on the way to school.

Jackson's biggest challenge is the extraordinary shortage of books. Small, outdated collections plague virtually all D.C. public high school libraries, which are chronically underfunded. Only three of the city's 16 regular and specialized high schools have library media centers that meet the the 11-to-1 ratio, said Pat Brown, director of library media services for D.C. schools, a position that was also empty for three years before she arrived in 2009.

Jackson did her own research when she took the Ballou job. Banneker, a selective, application-only high school with one-third of Ballou's enrollment, has three times the number of library books. Spingarn High School, with half the number of students as Ballou, has double the book collection, Jackson said.

She keeps a running list of book requests from teachers in a loose-leaf binder. The needs are vast - everything from Shakespeare to Octavia Butler to Richard Wright. She estimates that it would take about $250,000 to bring the Ballou library up to the 11-to-1 standard. She's constantly fundraising, but not always successfully. A recent event at a Barnes and Noble "did not go as well as I projected," she said. Next on the calendar is a "bowl-a-thon" Saturday at Lucky Strike lanes on Seventh Street NW. The goal is to raise $10,000.

Branch said Jackson had become an enormous asset. "She's a gem, more than that."

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