By Greg Mellen
It’s amazing what blotches of color, some rocking chairs and soft couches, and communal space can do to transform a library and its study area. That is the case at Oak Grove Elementary, where the school formally showed off its new-look library space with a ribbon cutting.
Principal Dr. Emma Robles said the reaction from the students to the space, which was unveiled after the school reopened from winter break, was overwhelming.
“When students came back the first day their eyes were popping and their mouths were open,” she said.
Robles said she put the question to the students.
“On a scale of 1 to 10 what do you think of the improvement?” Robles recalled asking. “They said ‘One gazillion.’ Now they don’t ask, ‘Do we have to go to the library?’ they say ‘We get to go to the library.’”
A gathering of about 50 PTA members, parents, and administrators for the Capistrano Unified School District convened in a multipurpose room adjacent to the school’s library for the ribbon cutting event. A curtain separated the room and library, which was parted for the “big reveal” which drew appreciative “oohs” and “aahs” from those in attendance.
Ibrahim Iqbal, a middle school student who graduated from Oak Grove last year, attended the event. As he leaned back on a couch he said, “I think this is way better.” His mother, Hosai Iqbal, said she was surprised at the level of excitement over a seemingly small addition to the library.
“They’ve been talking about it for weeks,” said the mom of two students still attending Oak Grove. “They’re super excited. I think the colors really work for the kids.”
Robles, the first-year principal at the school, said early in her tenure the group study areas consisted of old wooden rectangular tables and uncomfortable folding chairs. When she was asked by PTA President Emily Cravens about what Robles would like, a new library area was at the top of her list.
Luckily, the PTA had connections through member Karla Austin to Lakeshore Learning, a teacher and school supply store. Candace Weyna, a project manager for Lakeshore Learning, lives just two blocks from the school and was thrilled to take on the project. She also has a child who will attend Oak Grove in the future, which only added to her incentive.
The PTA collected $25,000 to outfit the new area. Weyva said new trends in outfitting schools are “big on collaborative areas” that are engaging for students. The tables and chairs were replaced by a central area with soft couches, overstuffed bean bag chairs, wobble chairs, comfy stools, and rocking chairs in bright colors. Spread throughout the library, which runs the length of the school’s main building, more reading chairs and stools were scattered.
“Kids love options,” Weyva said. “When they have more options, they feel more empowered.”
Weyva said she often only sees the results of her work online or via a video platform. Being at Oak Grove in person for the unveiling she said, “It’s a lot of fun to see it.”
The trend toward collaborative work areas is not restricted to schools, and has become a part of many workplaces. Proponents say such spaces are “aimed at streamlining teamwork through facilitating open communication, fostering creativity, and enabling spontaneous discussion amongst team members.”
Which is why Capistrano Unified Superintendent Dr. Chris Brown favors the Oak Grove approach.
“We know we’re preparing students for the future, so we should give them experiences like what they’ll see as adults when they work collaboratively,” he said. “It will help give them confidence and they’ll be more prepared for the future when they will be collaborating with their peers.”
Meanwhile, Robles said the experience was emotionally satisfying.
“I’m so excited to see the students laying about and enjoying reading,” she said.
With the new chairs, Oak Grove’s new library is officially rocking.