February 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Media Center to Learning Commons: One District’s Transformation

All photos are of the new learning commons at La Costa Canyon High School in Encinitas, CA. Photos courtesy of Adrienne St. George.

It’s amazing what cushy chairs, 24/7 digital access, and a more current, relevant print collection can do to transform overlooked media centers into places that students and teachers clamor to use. But that’s what happened to the high school libraries in the San Dieguito Union High School District (SDUHS) in Encinitas, CA. It took a strategic plan—and five years—and “a lot of talking and arm waving on my part,” says Adrienne St. George, the district library media coordinator for SDUHS.

St. George had been lobbying for learning commons while she was still a librarian at Diegueño Middle School in Encinitas. “When I started in 2000, there were thousands of books that were never circulated and old, heavy oak tables that were surrounded by stacks taking up half of the floor space and all of the wall space. There were three computers, two of which did not work.” Eventually, in the 10 years she was there, she was able to get funding for 32 more computers so the library could have a PC computer lab.

She didn’t want the changes to end there. Based on her research, she knew school libraries could emulate colleges and universities and become centers of technology and information literacy. But it wasn’t until St. George became the district’s librarian in 2010 and gave a presentation called “’SHHH!’ Is a Four-Letter Word” that SDUHS truly entered the 21st century.

A voter-approved bond fund in 2012 helped spur the changes. At first, the renovation committees were content to make small, basic tweaks to the media centers, such as upgrading the furniture. But St. George convinced her colleagues to embrace bigger changes by talking up information commons and showing pictures of and articles about successful transformations. Then she got to work getting input from teachers and students.

From Low-Traffic Media Centers to Thriving Commons

“My main goal was to get more students to want to come to the learning commons. I could have created a student roster of the same kids who came into the media centers every day. I wanted all students to feel welcome,” says St. George.

When polled, the high schoolers said they wanted a place that felt grown up, with comfy furniture, charging stations, lots of computers and devices, and a friendly staff person to assist if they needed it. They wanted a place where they could sit and talk with their friends without being told to be quiet. The kids also wanted a café (that got nixed, though, after a trial run demonstrated beverages don’t work well in these types of spaces).

Those aims fit with St. George’s goals, too, which also included a higher circulation rate. To achieve that, librarians weeded out the print collection, giving away books that hadn’t been checked out in years and replacing them with timely, up-to-date materials, including ebooks.  Another goal: Lots of devices and computers to go around—and Wi-Fi networks that could accommodate it all. Each learning commons has at least 14 LG Chromebase computers, 80 Google Chromebooks, and a few PCs for high-end software and printing. Kids who don’t own devices can check one out for the day.

The spaces are open and inviting. Students can move the furniture when classes aren’t in session, and teachers can arrange it to suit their needs. The common area is large enough to accommodate three to four classes at a time, as well as students who just want to use the space to plug in and study (or chill).

This is quite a change from the old media centers, which could only accommodate one class at a time, says St. George. “Teachers were not happy if stray students showed up, because the space was small due to the vast number of book stacks. Most teachers wanted quiet. Now student numbers have at least tripled since the renovations.” There’s a waiting list to use the new spaces, which are booked months ahead of time.

jumping the biggest hurdle

So what is the biggest takeaway from the SDUHS transformation? “The biggest hurdle, at this point, is probably financial,” says St. George. If a full renovation gets green-lighted, her advice is to keep everyone in the loop. To get reluctant school staff on board, telling them success stories is a big help. In addition, she suggests weeding the library’s collection constantly. (“Then watch the circulation explode.”) Ebooks are also necessary for students to succeed.

“And if you don’t have the finances, then a few little changes can make huge differences,” says St. George. Some of her suggestions: Remove stacks and replace the traditional tables and carrels with inviting furniture. Even one corner with plush chairs can draw students in—and showcase just how much kids will use the space.

Most importantly, stop calling your library a media center and refer to it as an information or learning commons instead, insists St. George—and make the switch official. “That one change helps people get rid of the image of the library as a book warehouse and allows for an entirely new vision to emerge.”

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  1. Richard Moore says:

    And not a word about qualified staff.

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