Friday, October 8, 2010

Renovations on burned library begin Monday

(We are pleased to play a role in the rebuilding of the Mesa Elementary library.)

SHIPROCK, NM — Children barely tall enough to rest their chins on the windowsill peered through a glass pane Thursday into the library at Mesa Elementary School.

The library is empty, stripped of everything save steel skeletons of walls and markings on the concrete floor where structures once stood. The library was targeted by arsonists Sept. 12, and Principal Pandora Mike estimates the school lost 20,000 books.

Students and staff also lost something of the school's heart, Mike said. The school was closed for five business days while a Texas-based company removed debris from the library and smoke and water damage from the rest of the school.

"We all took it really hard," she said. "It was a hard experience for everyone."
The school opened to students eight days after the fire gutted the library. Administrators opened the damaged wing two weeks after the fire, but left a window uncovered so students could peer into the library.

"When we opened that wing, it was all quiet and I walked down here to check on the students," Mike said. "A kindergartner was looking through this window, tears on his cheeks, and he looked at me and said, Ms. Mike, where are all of our books?'"
That conversation ignited an attitude adopted by everyone involved in the clean-up process, Mike said.

"The construction team said we should put paper over that window," she said. "I said absolutely not. We want our kids to be able to see our progress. ...We are taking the stand that we are going to rally back, to not miss a beat."

Renovation of the library is expected to begin Monday, with a reopening tentatively scheduled for January, district spokesman James Preminger said. Clean-up and construction costs are covered by the district's insurance policy, but likely will top $500,000.

Replacing the books is a more emotional matter, Librarian Darlene Chase said. The process began when students returned books they checked out and had at home at the time of the fire.

During the first weeks after the fire, students walked down the road to the Shiprock Library, which is part of the Farmington Public Library system. Only students with valid public library cards, however, could take books home, Chase said.

Chase decided to open a temporary library in Mesa's computer lab, where she spread books onto table tops, their cheery titles like familiar friends to students.

A first-grade class visited the makeshift library Thursday for the first time. Chase instructed students to browse titles and pick two books each.

"We're able to follow the regular library schedule," she said of the temporary facility. "I thought, let's keep the kids reading. I felt bad that they couldn't get books for a while."

Insurance is expected to cover the cost of replacing about 15,000 books, Mike said. Other donations will make up the rest.

One donor, the Reader to Reader program based at Amherst College in western Massachusetts, has pledged $50,000 in books to help rebuild the library.

"Our goal is to get the books in the library better than they were before," Reader to Reader Director David Mazor said. "It's not to restore it to the way it was before, but to make it better."

The organization collects new and gently used children's books and ships about 700 books every week to Mesa, Mazor said. Amherst College students are packing books into boxes as quickly as they are donated. The organization also accepts monetary donations to help Mesa purchase books in the Navajo language.

Mesa Elementary already has about 5,000 replacement books, Mike said. It is planning a celebratory "reshelving" event once renovation is complete.

The fire was a blow to everyone involved, said Mike, whose son was the first to spot the flames Sept. 12. Mike, who lives nearby, rushed to the school in the early morning hours as volunteer firefighters were arriving.

Mike recognized many of the firefighters as former students.

"I saw the flames getting higher and higher," she said of the fire, which was reported at about 5 a.m. "There was devastation all over, and a lot of the firefighters took it personally because they came to school here."

Although the fire destroyed the library, firefighters were able to contain it to the single room, saving the rest of the school.

"We could have lost our school," she said. Books were ruined, computers were melted and most furniture and other structures in the library were unsalvageable.

The FBI continues to investigate the fire. Agents last month told school officials four juveniles were identified as suspects. No additional information is available, FBI spokesman Frank Fisher said.

As renovation begins, students will remain welcome to peer through the glass and watch construction workers in action, Mike said. She wants the experience to emphasize the importance of books and the dedication of educators nationwide who are contributing to the rebuilding process.

"It's a blessing to be able to start over," she said. "It's comforting to know there are other (people) out there who love books."

By Alysa Landry The Daily Times
©2010 Daily Times

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