When Atlantic City Superintendent Donna Haye assigned Jennifer Jamison as the new Pennsylvania Avenue School’s library media specialist, her instructions were to create a 21st century learning environment that would be a model for the district.

Jamison (aka “Media Mama”) far exceeded expectations. In May, the American Association of School Librarians, or AASL, announced that the school’s library was one of three in the United States chosen as a National School Library Program of the Year, the first New Jersey school library to win the award.

The criteria for the award include meeting the needs of changing school and library environments, and fully integrating the library into the school curriculum. At a time when some school librarian jobs are being cut back to save money, Jamison said, her library shows why they are more crucial than ever, especially in urban districts, in giving students an enriched education.

Jamison said the integration of the library into the school was crucial in getting the award, and being able to start from scratch in a new school that opened in September gave her the opportunity to introduce new ideas to the staff. She started a teacher library advisory group. The school website allows teachers to share what they are doing so Jamison can offer input.

Flexible scheduling lets teachers get access to the library when they need it, and not just when it’s on a schedule — something that took some convincing but has resulted in more library use by teachers and students. Jamison has a library assistant, Etta Robinson, which helps free her up to spend time with teachers and students.

“This school really is a community of learners,” said Jamison, citing the school motto. “I went to teachers and said, ‘Tell me what you are doing in class so I can show you how I can help you.’”

Now, teachers post their lessons. Students do book reviews in class and can share them on the website so others can see what books they are reading and what they recommend.

“They really bought into my vision,” she said. “And I have an administration that backs me.”

Principal Sylvia Stewart said it was the students and staff who really helped convince the visiting evaluation team that the library deserved the award.

“The students took the team around and explained how the library works,” she said of the team of library aides, 18 students in grades five through eight who had to apply and meet academic and behavioral criteria to earn the positions. They also help other students check out books, help maintain the shelves and work on special projects.

“Readers are leaders,” Jamison said, adding that the aides have learned leadership and management skills, and serve as role models for the school.

Last week they stuffed large plastic bags with books and stuffed animals for the Summer Book Bags that Jamison will send home with every child in grades kindergarten through two, a program she started in 2008 as librarian at the Martin Luther King Jr. School.

She got so many books donated this year she also plans to give books to students in grades three through five, and expects to fill about 500 bags. Schools in Margate and Ventnor donated books, and friends and neighbors heeded her Facebook call and dropped boxes of donations off at her home in Upper Township.

“I’m good for this year,” she said. “But I’ll need more again next year.”

A former science teacher, Jamison got her master’s degree in library science and has been working as a school library media specialist in Atlantic City schools for seven years. She credits Superintendent Haye, the 2011 winner of the Distinguished School Administrator Award by the AASL, for believing in the role of strong school libraries.

“You really do need someone to manage all of the content,” Jamison said.

Haye said a special effort has been made to modernize the district’s libraries, and she is proud of the improvements all have been making. She said Jamison is a role model for the district, and she made her program worthy of the award.

“You go over there at 7:30 a.m., and there are students playing chess or reading,” she said. “They are the leaders of the school.”

Award committee chairwoman Katherine Lowe said in the award announcement that “Jennifer has made the library a place where students want to be whenever they have a spare moment.”

Principal Stewart concurred, saying students will go to the library after lunch rather than go outside or sit in the cafeteria and talk with their friends.

Student aides said they applied because they like to read and to help people. Jesus Pedro-Crespo, 10, demonstrated how their online site works. Jamison said he could run the library himself.

“I’m busy as a bee,” Jesus said. Asked what he likes to read, he said pretty much anything, though he doesn’t get to read as often as he might like.

“But just put a book in front of me and eventually I’ll read it.” he said. He especially likes reading on the school’s Nook electronic readers.

While Jesus easily works on the Web, he admits he doesn’t have Internet access at home so he comes to the library, another reason Jamison said the school library is so important to urban students.

School technology coordinator Marilyn Cohen helped set up the system and said Jamison is an example for the district of how to make the most of district services.

Stewart said she has seen the difference when students are in the library because they want to be, not because it’s their scheduled library period.

“The library really is the heart of the school,” she said.

The other two national winners this year are New Augusta South Elementary School in Indianapolis and Swan Valley High School in Saginaw, Mich. Each school will get an award and $10,000 for its library programs.

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