[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H2IqOoZi5tA[/youtube]VIDEO: In the past few years Dallas ISD sliced library funding by about 20 percent. Advocate photojournalist Danny Fulgencio talkes to Marsh Middle School librarian Mary Virginia Meeks about how the school’s students and their library are thriving despite the odds.

Catch up on our coverage of the Marsh Middle School library transformation.

By 8:15 each morning, students swarm the Marsh Middle School library, leaving almost no empty seats. The buzz of activity turns the room into more of a playground for reading. And, yes, socializing.

“This is not your mama’s library,” librarian Mary Virginia Meeks says. “We don’t believe in shushing.”

In the past few years, amid state and local budget cuts, Dallas ISD sliced library funding by about 20 percent. Still, in fall 2010, the Marsh library received a much-needed renovation through a grassroots fundraising effort that put the students to work. Over Thanksgiving break, 40 students worked two-hour shifts, cleaning, painting and re-organizing. In return, the school waived any outstanding fines.

In April, Meeks held a read-a-thon during which students camped out in the library for six hours to read books in exchange for pledges. They raised more than $1,700.

“It took a while, but every penny came in,” Meeks says.

After that, the vision for a more active and inviting library took off. The money raised at the read-a-thon paid for comfy couches and chairs. The PTA provided paint and fabric. Marsh corporate sponsor Fidelity Investments constructed a new bar in the center of the library called the Tech Café where students can use school-issued laptops and drink hot cocoa for 25 cents a cup. Uplift Education board member Todd Williams donated the bar stools.

Students busy themselves in the library before school starts, reading and working on class projects. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Circulation has jumped by at least 150 percent from two years ago, and traffic has skyrocketed with about 260 students using the library each day. Teachers must reserve class time at least a month in advance.

The makeover caught the attention of producers at Nickelodeon. They included Marsh in a “Nick News with Linda Ellerbee” segment about how students are taking action to help improve their schools despite tough economic times. A date had not been confirmed at press time, but the episode is scheduled to air this month.

However, Marsh’s transformation could not have happened without first getting the students interested in using the library.

Before Meeks arrived in 2010, the facility had not been updated in 50 years. It remained closed before and after school hours.

“It was just kind of there,” says Kyle Richardson, Marsh’s former principal who has since moved to Woodrow Wilson High School.

Marsh already had been making strides academically as one of the first Dallas ISD campuses to use the Teach for America program, which trains and employs recent college graduates to serve in struggling public schools. The Texas Education Agency rating went from “acceptable” to “recognized.”

Marsh librarian Mary Virginia Meeks, left, has executed her vision for the library with help from her assistant Llora Singer, right. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

“We were already doing great things, but the library was the missing piece,” Richardson says. “I’d like to be able to say we went out and found the perfect librarian. But Mrs. Meeks walked in the door. She came to us with a vision. It was almost too good to be true.”

Richardson also hired a library assistant, Llora Singer, to help with daily tasks. DISD funding for her position had been in place for years; it just hadn’t been utilized.

“I’m the grandma in here,” says Singer, whose children attended Marsh. “I get all the benefits of supporting the students. Mrs. Meeks is the brainchild. She’s the dreamer. We make a good team.”

Meeks previously taught English at Scofield Christian School for 10 years but wanted to become a full-time librarian. She got the job at Marsh and is working on a master’s degree in library sciences. Although public school demographics and economic statuses are different from those of private institutions, the issues are the same, she says.

“I think my heart is just about the kids. This is such a precious age. They are all a little insecure about who they are. They are still looking for a place to belong. We have the best opportunity to impact the drop-out rate and help them find their roots.”

Meeks found that the main thing keeping students away from the library was the fear of unpaid fines for lost books. So, with permission from the higher-ups, she wiped the slates clean in exchange for students’ service in helping remodel the library. Even now, the book return policy is more relaxed to keep kids coming back.

“I don’t want fines hanging over their heads. I would rather lose a book than a student.”

In recent years, libraries have made a shift from stiff, quiet zones to social places where people not only read but share ideas. Librarians are now media specialists, teaching students how to use new technologies and conduct research.

“It’s not just about books. It’s computers and other forms of media. It’s a learning commons. We want kids to have good memories here and to make them feel more comfortable going into a Starbucks or a university library,” Meeks says. “That was the goal.”

For seventh-grader Priscila Calderon, the library has become an escape from a stressful home life. Her family moved from Chicago last year, and she struggled to fit in as “the new kid” in school.

“I used to be really shy,” she says. “Now, I speak out more. I’m more independent. I spend as much time as I can at school because being at home is distracting.”

Calderon is always reading something, she says, especially science fiction books such as the Prophecy of the Sisters series.

“If I go a while without reading, my mind gets a bit foggy.”

Meeks encourages students to read books that relate to them, such as the Bluford High series, which chronicles the lives of inner-city children.

“Their lives are not easy,” Meeks says. “I want them to find a book that speaks to where they are. They’re not going to read ‘Little Women.’ ”

After sixth grade, students often spend less time in the library and start becoming more involved in extracurricular activities. That’s a good thing, Meek says.

“These are seventh graders who are leading other groups like debate, drama and ROTC. But they still come back. This is their little home.”

Although Meeks had the vision, the students made the library a success. They have taken over through programs such as “adopt-a-shelf” in which the students clean, organize and maintain their own areas of the library.

“When these kids lives are a mess, they feel helpless. This shows them they have power. It isn’t hopeless.”

The “Nick News with Linda Ellerbee” episode featuring Marsh is scheduled to air in March. Keep an eye out for it at news.nick.com.