Dumbarton Elementary library named best in state

Dumbarton Elementary School librarian Suzanna Panter works with a group of students during a recent collaborative learning exercise in the library.

The Dumbarton Elementary School library is a special place – just ask any of the school’s students, who regularly participate in collaborative learning projects with classmates and their teachers there and who are free to return and check out books any time during the school day.

Ask principal Eileen Traveline, who has witnessed a revival of the library as a place where true 21st century learning takes place each day and where students become excited about new technology and well-versed in group interaction and communication.

Ask parents of students for whom English is a second language, who have engaged in family literacy nights and taken field trips to public libraries to become more proficient in a new culture, thanks to the efforts of school officials.

Ask sixth-year librarian Suzanna Panter, whose leadership efforts have transformed the library into the focal point of the school.

Or, simply, take the opinion of the Virginia Association of School Librarians, which recently named the Dumbarton Elementary library its library of the year – making it the first elementary school ever to win the award.

“Our kids are constantly over-achieving,” Panter said. “It’s definitely a success story, and the library plays such an important role in the school.”

Dumbarton is unique in the way it utilizes its library as a developmental classroom for students. Instead of simply being dropped off by their teachers to spend time inside, students in second through fifth grades come to the libraries with their teachers to work on special projects and assignments that go beyond simply researching and reading.

“The teachers buy into the flexible schedule because they are a part of it and see the academic results in their students,” Henrico Deputy Superintendent for Policy and Elementary Education Pat Kinlaw wrote in a nomination letter on behalf of the school.

Achieving buy-in from teachers for the new system required some adjustment, principal Eileen Traveline said. But “I don’t think anyone would go back now. Once they got in there and realized the benefit of it for the children an their learning, I don’t think they would turn back.”

Reaching a diverse student body
Dumbarton has a diverse student population – 43 percent black, 25 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic and 9 percent Asian – and more than a quarter of its students speak English as a second language. Panter found that many children and their parents had not been to a county library, so she established regular family literacy nights at the school, during which students play literacy-themed games and read with their families. On other nights, translators explain the program to new ESL families and encourage parents to get their own school library cards as a way to help them learn English.

The school also has organized several field trips to public libraries to further its education and outreach efforts.

Because only about half of Dumbarton’s students live in households that have computers, it’s even more critical that they are exposed to technology in school, Traveline said.

“If we don’t provide them with 21st-century skills, then they don’t get them,” she said.

Traveline credits Panter with creating the culture that has helped students excel.

“She’s very innovative, very much on top of what current research says,” Traveline said. “She has a vision, and she’s constantly trying to think of new things to do.

“The kids are excited about what they’re doing. They’re working in groups, they’re collaborating, they’re learning.”

Panter and Dumbarton officials have viewed the school’s library as a model for other elementaries because of the unique way it serves its community. Now, the VaASL has concurred.

“Ms. Panter integrates information literacy, skillful research and inquiry, and ethical use of technology for all students,” VaASL officials said in a statement announcing the award.

The library’s “open-access” model is designed to encourage students to spend time in the library any time. With their teachers’ permission, students can visit the library during the school day to return and check out books.

“People just think that kids just come to the library, read books and go, and that’s just not how it is in Henrico and at Dumbarton,” Panter said. “We collaborate with teachers to come up with projects to teach SOL skills on problem solving drills.

“I’m hoping that we’ll become even more of a model, especially with the collaboration piece.”

Thanks to federal stimulus money several years ago, the school was able to purchase 10,000 new books for its library, replacing a number of old ones in the process. Now, with a complement of 15,000 books overall, students have plenty from which to choose – and choose they do. They check out an average of 7,000 books each month.

Dumbarton also recently earned a grant from the Henrico Education Foundation to support its e-reader incentive program, which Panter identified as a way to engage students who weren’t excited about reading. Students can check out an e-reader for six weeks, take it home and read with their parents.

“The ultimate goal is for kids to love to read,” Panter said. “Students will check out the [e-readers] for six weeks and twice a week will come to the library to discuss the books they’re reading. Parents are invited once a week as well.”

Said HEF program manager Paula Roop of Panter’s concept: “We like the idea that she was trying to use technology to impact achievement. By letting children take it home, it engages the parents as well as students.”

Dumbarton officials will be honored during the VaASL Conference in Hampton Nov. 9.
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