This time last year, Thomas Johnson Elementary/Middle School librarian Sharon Smith used the only technology she had — a laptop and a projector — to bring color and excitement to her students by shining animated books from the Internet onto a barren wall.
But on Wednesday, as she looked around the new books, technology, and wraparound murals of the bright, renovated 2,000-square-foot space, complete with quaint reading nooks and comfortable public spaces, she breathed a sigh of relief knowing that she could give her creative wheels a break.
"Before I would try and think of anything to make this a place of excitement, and now it's exciting all on its own," Smith said. "I'm just so happy that we have a 21st-century library for our 21st-century kids."
Led by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and supported by 30 businesses, nonprofits and government agencies, Thomas Johnson hosted the first public look at the "Baltimore Elementary and Middle School Library Project," conceived last year to use private and public funding to bring new libraries to some of the city's most challenged schools.
Thomas Johnson is one of the first schools to get a $1 million library and media center from the Weinberg Foundation. State, local, business and education leaders gathered there Wednesday to celebrate the public-private collaboration.
Through grants and financial support to other agencies, the Weinberg Foundation has touched roughly 89 percent of schools in the city, said Rachel Garbow Monroe, the foundation's president. But this project, she said, was unique.
"For the first time, our commitment went [further]," Monroe said. "We did more than write a check."
In addition to being intimately involved in the building of partners and the new facilities, the foundation increased its funding in the last year to $5 million for the project — about one-third of the combined capital and operating costs of each site — to expand the project from three to 12 libraries, each costing about $1 million.
The projects were lauded nationally by the American Association of School Librarians, whose president, Susan Ballard, said that libraries have too often been sacrificed.
"Libraries and librarians are critically important now more than ever," Ballard said. "It's the worst of times, and communities with libraries are the ones that have been able to maintain vibrant programs and remain relevant in a climate that's constantly changing."
Also part of the first round of renovations are Southwest Baltimore Charter School and Moravia Park Elementary. At the celebration, the foundation announced that the next three recipients of new libraries will be Arlington Elementary, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School and the Henderson-Hopkins East Baltimore Community School.
The libraries include at least 2,000 new books, new equipment and furniture, Nook e-readers and computers, signs that welcome students in more than 50 languages, and a "Pratt Library Parents' Place" that is open to parents and guardians, according to the foundation.
"This is one of those days that makes you realize how lucky we are to have each other," said Gov. Martin O'Malley, who showed up in March with a wheelbarrow of books and the Cat in the Hat during a book drive.
"The Weinberg Foundation is, I think, setting a new standard for a meaningful commitment to public education by the private, philanthropic community," said city schools CEO Andrés Alonso.
He added that the libraries come at a critical time for the school system, which is implementing a new curriculum being adopted by almost every state in the country. It requires more rigor and resources, and its foundation is literacy development.
The library project will also work with the Baltimore Education Research Consortium to examine the achievement growth experienced at the three schools whose libraries were completed this year.
The library project also coincides with the city schools' capital campaign to raise billions of dollars to rebuild and renovate the oldest school infrastructure in the state. The campaign hopes to reach its $2.5 billion goal by leveraging public and private funds.
Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, whom O'Malley credits with a strong push for funding school facilities, also spoke at the event about the importance of libraries.
The library project "gives children the opportunity to visit worlds they may never travel to, to meet people of different cultures who they may never encounter face to face," he said.
Thomas Johnson sixth-grader Emily Nolan said she was most looking forward to taking an imaginative journey.
"This new library will help you get lost in the world of books," she said, "instead of staying in reality."
twitter.com/EricaLGCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun