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Parents pitch in to build library at school near Whittier

Using bookshelves, signs and lighting fixtures bought at a Borders close-out sale, volunteers work evenings and weekends for months to transform an empty bungalow into a brightly colored reading haven at Aeolian Elementary.

March 04, 2012|By Angel Jennings, Los Angeles Times

For almost a decade, Aeolian Elementary School did not have a library.

So when parents decided to open one on the campus near Whittier, they decided not to wait for the cash-strapped school district to fund it. Instead, they built it themselves. Literally.

The Parent-Teacher Committee dug into its piggy bank, went to a Borders bookstore close-out sale and purchased every bookshelf, sign and lighting fixture in the place.

Over the next seven months, volunteers worked weekends and evenings to transform an empty bungalow into a brightly colored reading haven adorned with thousands of books. The Aeolian School Library in the community of Los Nietos opened its doors last week to eager young readers in time to celebrateDr. Seuss' birthday.

"Having a library is a dream come true for me," said Kayla Waugh, a third-grader. "Normally, the only library I can go to is in my classroom, and it is small."

Under the guidance of the school's principal, the parents said, they feel more empowered than ever, and it shows.

Principal Amber Lee-Ruiz required parents to give three hours of their time per month to the school or donate $15 a month. "There are so many volunteers that I don't know what to do with them," Lee-Ruiz said.

But Cindy Waugh did.

Already a leader among parents, Waugh was appointed treasurer of the Parent-Teacher Committee. But the unemployed mother of two quickly emerged as the unofficial director of the library project.

Waugh tapped into the various talents and resources of the volunteers. She called on Freddy Acosta, whose two sons attend Aeolian, to haul the Borders purchases in his company's truck.

Then she asked Emilio Sosa, an executive director at the YMCA, to act as the publicist and seek donations.

Jeff Fontenot, a licensed contractor and the son of the school's secretary, was called in to construct the bookshelves.

Nobody was exempt. Even the neighborhood soccer players who practiced on Aeolian's field were asked to alphabetize books.

"Everybody played a role, from the parents to the custodians," Waugh said. "We found something for everybody to do."

Waugh formerly supervised new stores' openings as a human resource manager, so completing this project was not much different, except for the limited resources, she said. Along the way, she learned some Spanish from the other volunteers and made friends with parents she had never met before.

The parent group fronted the initial $3,000 cost for bookshelves, which the Los Nietos School District later reimbursed. Everything else was donated.

Southern California Edison gave the school 10 laptops for a joint computer center. Book Ends, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, donated 10,000 books. Students held book drives.

In total, the school collected 14,500 books valued at more than $75,000.

Nobody can recall the exact year the old library vanished. Some say the former principal converted the space into a classroom.

When Lee-Ruiz took over the school five years ago, she made literacy a priority. The first-time principal focused on raising the low-performing school's standardized test scores.

Of the 550 students, 98% are Latino. More than half are learning English. All students receive free lunches.

The school's Academic Performance Index score jumped 148 points in four years, bringing the test levels on par with the state target of 800 points.

Two days before the grand opening, volunteers were hard at work assembling wooden chairs. The sound of the drill drowned out Waugh issuing assignments.

After receiving her job, Adriana Martinez, 28, stepped on a table armed with black paint and a brush. She outlined a fish on the border of the bookshelf.

Nearby, her son, Anthony, buried his head in a book. He looked up briefly and surveyed his surroundings.

"The room looks cool," the second-grader said of the Dr. Seuss-themed space.

His eyes disappeared behind the pages. Martinez smiled, knowing her son will have several years to enjoy the library she helped create.

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