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April 15, 2014

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Chicago Building Its First Joint High School/Public Library from the Ground Up

chicago hs pl Chicago Building Its First Joint High School/Public Library from the Ground UpChicago’s taking the partnership between public and school libraries to the next level—it’s building its first public library as part of a school.

The Back of the Yards branch of the Chicago Public Library plans to open its doors in the fall of 2013, serving both the new Back of the Yards High School and the local community. The 8,000 square foot building, which will sit next to the high school and have a separate entrance for the public, is taking its cue from the success of YOUmedia, an innovative 21st century teen learning space housed in the Chicago Public Library that focuses on promoting digital media skills, says Ruth Lednicer, the library’s director of marketing.

The system has turned school classrooms into public library space in the past, as was done at South Side’s Carver Elementary, However, this will be the first “purpose-built public library” that will exist as part of the structure of a school, explains Lednicer.

The pilot project between the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Public Library is expected to save the city about $15 million, or the cost of building a new public library, says Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office.

“The Back of the Yards high school will become a community anchor for both students and residents in the community, who have been without a library for a year,” said Emanuel when he announced the partnership earlier this week. “This innovative approach will provide residents and students with the library they deserve.”

Given its name because of its proximity to the former Union Stock Yards, Back of the Yards is an economically-disadvantaged neighborhood populated mainly by Hispanic families. The community hasn’t had a library for a year, since constant flooding forced the closing of a store front library located in a strip mall across the street from where the new high school and library is currently under construction. Currently, the neighborhood’s closest public library is McKinley Park Branch, about two miles away.

“Co-locating the public library with the new school will increase the resources available to students, but also provide residents with a new full-service library, open six days a week, that will offer the full complement of early-childhood reading programs that are instrumental to student success,” says Brian Bannon, the new commissioner of the Chicago Public Library. “Students will have the benefit of teacher librarians and public librarians to support academic and personal interests, and the opportunity to mentor younger children and gain community service hours within their school building.”

Although many details such as collection size, hours of operation, and specific programs still need hammering out, the library will have a media specialist (Chicago mandates high school librarians), a children’s librarian, an adult librarian, and Chicago’s first teen branch librarian. Previously, the central library had the city’s only young adult librarian, explains Lednicer.

“It’ll be a teen-focused collection with digital resources that will use the best practices of YOUmedia,” she says, adding that the library will have a strong early literacy program for toddlers.

Although Back of the Yards has K-8 schools (Chicago doesn’t have middle schools), the neighborhood is without a high school, forcing area teens to travel to 20 different magnet and charter schools throughout the city, Lednicer says. Back of the Yards high school, located on the grounds of a former auto salvage and metal fabricating business, will serve 1,200 students—and the library will be stocked with a brand new opening day collection.

As an International Baccalaureate (IB) school, Back of the Yards will have a more challenging curriculum-and the library’s collection will cater to those needs. A full-time media specialist, who will be involved in resource selection and ensure the library collection meets the needs of an IB curriculum, will work alongside public librarians during school hours. Students also will have access to the public library’s system-wide collections. Chicago Public Library will operate the library as one of its 79 branches.

“We are delighted that more students will have the opportunity to explore the vast resources available through the Chicago Public Library, turning this neighborhood school into a year-round learning center,” said Chicago Public School’s CEO Jean-Claude Brizard.

The nearly $64 million school will have a public reading garden and a Silver rating under the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Schools Rating System.

About Debra Lau Whelan

Debra Whelan is a former senior editor for news and features at SLJ.

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