Creating a Safe Space: Anita Cellucci, 2016 School Librarian of the Year Finalist

Thanks to Anita Cellucci, the Westborough (MA) High School library is a hub where teens come to read and relax, learn about mental wellness, hold poetry slams, and dream big.
Photo by David Fox Photography

Photo by David Fox Photography

Westborough High School, Westborough, MA

Anita Cellucci wanted to become a school librarian “to create that safe space in a way that enriches the community,” she says. Mission accomplished, and much more: At Westborough High School (WHS) in central Massachusetts, Cellucci has turned the library into a safe space to read and learn about anything, including mental health. A 2014 survey of adolescents by the MetroWest Health Foundation found that among the 1,045 WHS students, 30 percent of girls and 14 percent of boys reported "depressive symptoms" in the past 12 months. Girls showed the highest percentage of thoughts of suicide. Cellucci envisioned the library as a place where, along with reading and relaxing, teens could learn about mental wellness and break down stigmas, adopting the pledge #Iamstigmafree.

She made mental health education part of WHS’s library curriculum, with the goal of creating a more empathetic community. While students already sought her as a trusted adult, “Kids go to kids,” she notes. “If they have the tools, they are likely to give them better information.”

With a $5,000 federal Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant that supplemented her $21,000 annual budget, Cellucci funded mental health programs such as yoga, a writing marathon, field trips to slam poetry competitions, and a new Psychology and Literature senior unit, which Cellucci co-teaches with WHS English teacher Kathy Stoker. “A visionary like no other” is how Stoker characterizes the librarian—“one of the most resourceful, intelligent, diligent, passionate, and enthusiastic educators with whom I have worked.”

An oversized coloring sheet at Cellucci’s library offered students a chance to relax during finals in May and June. Photo courtesy of Westborough High School library

An oversized coloring sheet at Cellucci’s library offered
students a chance to relax during finals in May and June.
Photo courtesy of Westborough High School library

Seminar students developed a guided-inquiry design project, choosing from topics such as music and art therapy, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. One boy lacked confidence in his academic and social abilities, Stoker recounts. “Instead of giving up on him like a lot of people did, [Anita] asked him to take a leadership position in a day seminar. He was awestruck that someone believed in him that much.” In November, Stoker and Cellucci will present on “Educators Exploring Empathy in Emotional Intelligence” at the National Council of Teachers of English convention. Cellucci also spoke about guided-inquiry design at the 2015 American Association of School Librarians conference.

Cellucci has a gift for making people feel at ease, says Westborough Public Library director Maureen Ambrosino, a 2009 Library Journal Mover & Shaker. Frequent collaborators, the two organized a Teen Advisory Board and a community literacy project based on Laura Harrington’s novel Alice Bliss (Viking, 2011), a coming-of-age story about a military family that touches on mental health issues.The book became a town-wide read, a project supported by the LSTA grant. “Not every city or town is lucky enough to have such close relationships between public and school libraries,” says Ambrosino. “Any time I ask other school librarians if they know Anita, they all have the same response—a huge smile, and words to the effect of, ‘Of course! She’s amazing!’”

While the public library’s adult book clubs were discussing Alice Bliss, a WHS summer reading committee, chaired by Cellucci, tapped the novel as its 2015 summer reading pick. Eighteen WHS staff members also signed up for book discussion groups with other adults at the school, including parents. In April 2016, Cellucci used grant funds to bring Harrington to campus for a student writing marathon.

“Anita places students and their voices and passions at the center of all her planning,” says Concord-Carlisle Regional High School librarian Robin Cicchetti. In central Massachusetts, Cellucci is known for encouraging student expression—whether that takes the form of weekly lunchtime musical performances or Power Poetry Thursdays. She also chaperones students to participate in the state’s Louder Than a Bomb teen poetry slam festival.

Currently president of the Massachusetts School Library Association, Cellucci has presented before state legislators about the importance of using libraries for mental health outreach and brought students to the statehouse to testify about her program. The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners uses her mental health initiative as a model for grant writing. At WHS, only 5.5 percent students are economically disadvantaged. One of Cellucci’s goals is for other school librarians to have resources to dream big, and to advocate for more—and more equitable—funding for school libraries, and certified librarians, across the state.

Lynch-Grace-Hwang-2016-TNGrace Hwang Lynch is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has written for PBS, PRI, Salon, and BlogHer. Follow her on Twitter @HapaMamaGrace.

About the Award

SLJ presents the third annual School Librarian of the Year Award in partnership with sponsor Scholastic Library Publishing. The award honors a K–12 library professional for outstanding achievement and the exemplary use of 21st-century tools and services to engage children and teens toward fostering multiple literacies.

This year’s award recognizes one winner and two finalists from a strong pool of 48 applicants. The winning school librarian receives a $2,500 cash award, plus $2,500 worth of print and digital materials from Scholastic Library Publishing. The two finalists each receive $500 in materials of their choice from Scholastic Library Publishing.

THE 2016 JUDGES: Kristina Holzweiss, 2015 School Librarian of the Year and librarian and library media specialist at Bay Shore (NY) Middle School; Jodi Mahoney, principal, Greenbrook Elementary School, South Brunswick, NJ; and the editors of School Library Journal.

Read more about the award.


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