When Dr. Tanna Nicely became principal of South Knoxville Elementary (SKE) two and half years ago, the first vision she had was to add a splash of color to an old school. At over 50 years old, the school was in need of some new life, and the first place she decided to start was in the library (see Figure 1), a room that touches every child in the school and could be opened to the community.
Dr. Nicely began the revitalization process by repurposing the librarian position. Historically, SKE employed a part-time librarian, but Dr. Nicely saw the importance of having a full-time librarian who could co-teach and collaborate with teachers and make books available to students. To fund the full-time position, Dr. Nicely was given the autonomy to use Title I funds.
After repurposing the librarian position, Dr. Nicely worked with the East Tennessee Community Design Center and Cope Architects to transform and enhance the old library into a revitalized space for our young learners. An initial meeting with community stakeholders and Douglas Dillingham, Knox County Schools Building Supervisor, produced a long list of needs and wishes for the new library. The vision started with the needs of the school and community and with honest conversation about what the ultimate library would contain. The community wanted to connect the revitalization of the library to the revitalization that is currently taking place right outside the school doors. The City of Knoxville’s plans for the South Water Riverfront Revitalization Project mirror the streetscape and library access the SKE library project generated.
The list of needs and wishes produced a discussion of tiers of support for the project ranging from donation of signage from Sycamore Signs to labor by a teacher’s husband on his day off that brought color to the walls. The community rallied together by taking each item one by one and committing to call for either pro bono work or a donation of materials for the cause. Other community partners provided grant money to purchase some of the larger ticket items such as the door to the outside. The door was an integral part of the entire vision because it opened the library directly to the community. The natural light provided by the new door is one of the first things visitors notice when they enter the library (see Figure 2). The door symbolized the new bright outlook for the future of the library.
Creating the actual space was left up to Viktoria Henderson, the new librarian at South Knoxville Elementary. Dr. Nicely’s directions were, “Dream the dream. If you want it, let’s get it for our library.” Henderson decided to take her directions and make the library of her dreams. Henderson opened up the space by removing bookcases, discarding outdated equipment, and using the thought, “If it’s not being used, it’s not for the library” (see Figure 3). Henderson started by weeding hundreds of books to give students room to move around the library, and also so students could also see what books were available. She also got rid of child-sized rectangular tables and requested dry erase puzzle tables that can be rearranged depending on the activity and are tall enough for adults to sit at comfortably. The addition of the tables created a buzz with adults and students alike. Everyone wanted to come see tables you could actually write on without getting in trouble (see Figures 4 and 5). The excitement served as a catalyst for producing more ideas for improvements that caused Nicely and Henderson to revisit the original vision of the new library.
In addition to a new entrance and tables, the renovated library boasts updated lighting and countertops along with new paint, rugs, chairs, and a new circulation desk (see Figure 6). A flat screen TV and AppleTV replaced the ActivBoard. The library also gained a reading nook, Makerspace, and Chromebooks.
Fast-forward a year: The library is now a thriving center for both South Knoxville Elementary and the community. Thanks to the renovations and the addition of the Makerspace, creativity and new learning has been stirred into the lives of South Knoxville students and staff. Students and staff can be found reading and learning in the library throughout the school day, and the community uses the library in the evenings.