Historic Tacoma school renovation eyed as chance to open a library on the Hilltop

McCarver Elementary School has been a neighborhood landmark and a symbol for educational experimentation on Tacoma’s Hilltop since the school opened in 1925.

And with the historic brown brick school set for a $39 million renovation beginning this summer, the Tacoma School District hopes McCarver will continue as a beacon of innovation well into the future.

So do the Hilltop and school communities, which are focusing attention on the new school library planned as part of the renovation.

A citizen group called the Hilltop Library Planning Committee has asked both the school district and Tacoma Public Library about keeping McCarver’s new library open for public use several days a week, after school lets out.

Nobody has said “No” to the idea yet, but neither has anyone said a definite “Yes,” according to committee members. School district and library officials say they’re actively exploring the options.

“We are working to try to get a library on the Hilltop, and McCarver School is the prime site,” said Al Nurse, a member of the committee who lives in University Place but who attends church and who mentors kids at the Al Davies Boys & Girls Club in the Hilltop neighborhood.

Committee members aren’t asking for a full-service branch library. Rather, they hope for afternoon and early-evening hours, a few days a week.

For now, they want a place where neighborhood children can go after school to study, work on computers and check out books for fun.

Committee members say it’s a matter of equity for a racially diverse, low-income neighborhood. Last spring, 95 percent of McCarver’s students qualified for free-and-reduced-price lunches.

“We want to change the picture of the Hilltop,” Nurse said.

Meanwhile, some members of McCarver’s staff have raised issues with how the school’s new library has been designed.

Lori Goodrich, a reading and math support teacher at the school, says she speaks for several members of the staff.

“One of our biggest concerns with the new building is the library,” she said. “It is beautiful. But it’s not being built as a place to teach kids.”

Staff members’ main complaint, according to Goodrich: The library is designed using an open-space concept, without exterior hallway walls.

“Books will be on the shelves, open to the hallways, with no way to secure them,” Goodrich said. “When classes go through the halls, it would interrupt instruction.”

She and others are also concerned about a two-story atrium with a second-floor hallway overlooking the library.

Students could “call out, yell from one hall to the other if they see somebody passing,” Goodrich said. Other staff members are worried that kids will throw things over the guardrail safety barriers.

“The architects are seeking design awards, the school board is seeking recognition for the library of the future, and no one seems concerned about the educational impact of this transparent library,” Goodrich said.

Stephen Murakami, the school district’s chief operations officer, said the district wants to include the new library into a concept it calls McCarver Square.

“We want to make the library the front porch for the school — a place everybody will pass through,” he said, noting that the new library will include more technology and spaces where small groups of students can work.

He said atria and open-space concepts have been employed at other schools without causing disruption. The hope is that students will respect a new, beautiful space that’s designed to invite them in.

Murakami acknowledges that the planned new McCarver library may not be comfortable for traditional librarians.

“We are trying to define what the library of the future will be,” he said.

Any type of library at McCarver appeals to the Hilltop Planning committee, as long as it’s open a few days a week for after-school use. The group’s goal is to promote early literacy skills for children.

Nurse points out that the Hilltop hasn’t had a library in recent years. The main library on Tacoma Avenue South might seem close, but he points out that parents are reluctant to send their children downtown. Prior to its closure in 2011 due to budget cuts, the Martin Luther King Jr. library at South 19th and Cedar streets was the closest branch.

He said the social and economic impact of an after-hours library at McCarver might not be felt for years. But he and others say it would send an immediate message to children that they matter to the larger community.

Both school district and library officials agree. They plan to meet with the Hilltop committee later this month.

Plans posted on the school district website already call for a “community resource center inside the building, with separate entrance and controlled access into the elementary school.”

Some of the biggest questions are how to staff the library and how much it would cost. Tacoma Public Library Director Susan Odencrantz said in a memo to the committee that the library has an agreement with its labor union to have no fewer than two library employees at any library site, for safety reasons.

Committee members are heartened by the positive talk, but realize that with construction at McCarver scheduled to begin this summer, they must act quickly.

“The window is closing fast,” Nurse said.