By Jared Council
Standing in the library children's area named after her and near a plaque honoring her 37 years of service, Virginia Beach Public Library Director Marcy Sims noted the correlation between reading skills and prisons.
"Virginia is one of the states that bases the number of prison cells it will need on third-grade reading scores," Sims said.
Test scores from that benchmark year - after which children are expected to transition from "learning to read" to "reading to learn" - are one of the earliest indicators of the likelihood of a child contributing to or burdening society, Sims said. So every prior year matters, she said, and she and others hope the new Virginia Beach/Tidewater Community College Joint-Use Library will help advance early childhood education locally.
"We know so much about the importance of the 0- to 5-year-old age range, because 90 percent of the child's brain is developed by age 5," Sims said. "So we feel a real commitment to these very young residents."
The new library, located at the corner of Rosemont Road and Faculty Boulevard on the TCC Virginia Beach Campus, opened Aug. 17. It is one of the few in the country that was built through a public-public partnership, as some have called it. In this case, it's the Virginia Community College System and the city of Virginia Beach.
Talks for the two-story, 125,000- square-foot facility date back to 2005 when the city and TCC were looking to build libraries in the same vicinity. City Manager Jim Spore and former TCC President Deborah DiCroce figured it made sense to join forces, Sims and others said, and the respective governing bodies agreed.
Among other things, the $43 million library features about 128,000 items, nearly 400 public access computers, a cafe and 36 study rooms with flat-screen TVs. The collaboration, officials said, will offer the research capacity and longer hours of a college library and the popular materials, programming and children's area of a public library.
"There's a lot of potential for this," Steve Litherland, associate vice president for libraries at TCC, said about students and the general public. "There's the benefit of both sets of constituents having access to both collections."
Officials on the early childhood education front say although there's more work to be done, the Joint-Use Library's children's area may help bolster the cause. According to the Rauch Foundation, a Long Island, N.Y.-based nonprofit, roughly 85 percent of brain development occurs before age 5, but only 14 percent of public education dollars are spent on early childhood education in the U.S.
Karen Kehoe, who heads GrowSmart, a Beach Economic Development Authority arm aimed at early childhood education, said the new library stands to be a valuable asset as it embraces the "learn through play" model.
"It's very interactive," Kehoe said. "There are things for kids to touch and play with, all of which support their literacy learning. I think it's really going to do wonders for our community."
The 6,000-square-foot children's area - formally known as the Marcy Sims Children's Room - features age-tailored computers, about 30,000 books and an activity room. The library will employ 75, and nine staff members - seven full-time - will be dedicated to the children's area and programming. As in other Beach libraries, families can participate in programs for children as young as 6 months old.
Burgeon Group, a Phoenix-based firm, produced several components for the interactive area, including a motion-sensing, lighted entryway and a "Tree of Knowledge" behind the reception desk. It also installed a museum-like interactive learning station, which has letters, numbers, clocks, gears, submarine windows and more.
Kim van der Veen, a designer with the firm, said its installations only appear in libraries, and the Joint-Use Library has its largest installation on the East Coast. There are about 260 in the U.S., she said, and Virginia Beach now has four.
"It started about a decade ago when libraries started doing these," van der Veen said about interactive areas, "and Virginia Beach is still on the cutting edge for a major installation on the East Coast."
At a Joint-Use Library pre-opening event last week, about 10 children gathered around Kathleen Fogarty, an information specialist who played guitar and read a story about a dog that made other animal noises. As Fogarty moved to a board with alphabet magnets and asked what they were, a wide-eyed Jonas Elsass, 3, shouted, "They're letters!"
The session was akin to the free storytime sessions the Beach libraries hold for age groups up to 5, and the curriculum is based on Every Child Ready to Read standards. When the Joint-Use Library is in full swing, it will offer about 20 different sessions a week, bringing the total number of sessions at the 10 Beach libraries to more than 60.
"The curriculum builds over time, and all of our sessions run six weeks," said Katie Cerqua, the library system's youth and family services manager. "And most of the time our parents will re-register for the next round."
The new library may have unique opportunities to expand early childhood education, Litherland and others said. TCC students with children may be able to utilize the center, and students studying early childhood education can access materials not typically found at a college library.
Sims is retiring in September and is being replaced by Eva Poole, chief of staff at the District of Columbia Public Library. Sims spearheaded the creation of GrowSmart, which began as a library program called "Ready to Learn." That program got its current name in 2009 and moved under the Beach EDA in 2011.
With city and grant money, GrowSmart's tasks include easing transition into public schools, business mentoring services for day-care and preschool operators, and coordinating a rating system for those facilities.
"Certainly, we've had this as one of our major focus areas in Virginia Beach: to be a leader in early childhood education," Sims said. "It's so critical that children enter school ready to learn. And we believe that the library can play a huge role in helping parents learn the skills and teach their children the skills that their children will need to be good readers when they enter school."