21st Century makeover at Fox Chapel

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21st Century makeover at Fox Chapel

Voice: July 2017

Walk into the main entrance of Fox Chapel Area High School, and the first thing you encounter is a café-style commons area that adjoins the library and the school’s technology center.

The library’s glass walls and ceiling provide plenty of natural light, and just outside are neatly landscaped courtyards with tables where students can go to study, eat lunch, or relax during nice weather. Much of the furniture is on wheels so students and teachers can move it around to accommodate their needs.

The idea is to make the library the “hub of the school’’ – a phrase used by both Laura Ward, the school librarian, and Principal Mike Hower.

“It’s sort of a Starbucks idea,’’ Ward said. “We want the students to be comfortable here. They certainly come for academic purposes, but it’s also a place where they can just socialize and hang out with friends.’’

Ward just completed her fourth year as librarian, and the departure from more traditional library furnishings and the culture took place after her first year.

Like Hershey High School in the Derry Twp. School District, Fox Chapel, in Allegheny County, has a strong economic base that allows for ample resources, and there is a strong commitment from the administration to make the library system a top priority. All six district buildings have full-time librarians and aides.

Ward and Hower were on the same page when the library was renovated.

“What we did with the commons area, tech center, help desk, and the library in one place was to make this the hub of the school,’’ Hower said. “We made a concerted effort to put it all in one place to encourage students to use it in a variety of ways.’’

Era of ‘general hush’ is over

Before the renovation, Ward described the library as ‘“70s or ‘80s era.’’

There were traditional furnishings and the traditional stern atmosphere. The number of students allowed in the library from study halls was limited.

“We used to have turnstiles in front of the library and security gates. A general hush would come over you,’’ Hower said. “That frustrated me. This is a place where students should want to come to read, or to study, or to socialize.’’

Mission accomplished.

On a recent day, students chatted in the commons area. In the library, students worked individually and collectively in the main library area, while in one of the library’s separate rooms a ninth-grade history class was holding mini-debates.

Ward is generally overseeing and making herself available to students who need guidance, but on other days she could be teaching classes in the library or assisting other teachers and their students with class projects.

There are no limitations on the number of students. The “general hush’’ to which Hower referred is gone. In fact, when Ward herself wanted a student across the library to meet a visitor, she just yelled out his name.

Many students have their own laptops or iPads, but the library loans out technology, including cellphones and Wi-Fi devices that can be used throughout the school.

A community asset

The school day starts at Fox Chapel at 7:30, but the library opens at 7 a.m. and at 6:55 students are lined up at the door.

It’s also open at least another 80 minutes after the school day, and Ward says there could be anywhere from 50 to 100 kids during those times.

And when students aren’t using the library, it is made available to community groups, including charity telethons.

Guest lecturers have included such prominent authors as Marja Mills, A.S. King, Heather Terrell, Philip Beard, and Gregory Maguire.

“We often partner with the public libraries for events,’’ Ward said. “They invite students to their events, and their patrons get invited to some of ours. The students get top priority, but we like to think of the library as a community asset as well.’’