Around noon, three days every week, 15 students at the Bronx Academy of Letters spill into the quiet library for their regular academic advisement session. The library is no bigger that the lobby of an apartment building. The walls are painted warm oranges and yellows. Along two of them are rows of books stacked neatly on shelves. Student artwork is framed above the shelves and one wall features a decal quoting Edgar Allan Poe. It reads, “Dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”
In the middle of the room there are what can be best described as kiosks. They’re hybrid desk/cubicles with single shelves upon which dictionaries and SAT test prep books are arranged. The rest of the space is filled with wooden tables and a couple of computer workstations. There is also a large counter with a single chair.
According to the New York City Department of Education, there are 409 public schools in the Bronx. Only 99 have libraries. The space was hard earned, guided by the special needs of the school and afforded by grant applications written by Letters’ librarian. The very room that houses the library was remodeled from a classroom to facilitate an environment that administrators consider “necessary for a language arts high school.” But after just three years of existence, the library is in danger of being converted back to a classroom as the New York Department of Education plans to move a charter school into Letters’ building.
The school’s librarian, Kelly Overton, is the group of 15’s assigned mentor. At the first advisory of the second semester, Overton held the door of the library open with one hand while the other hand held her advisees’ updated transcripts. The sheaf of paper held information that could make a big difference in the students’ futures. The pages showed which classes they passed or failed and the results of a test that determined whether or not they would graduate high school.
The students’ uniforms mixed together in a flood of maroon polo shirts and black pants that seemed to fill the room in the rush of activity as they entered. In the halls, students are generally orderly but they entered the library for this crucial meeting with unusual commotion. Some hugged each other. Others clustered into small groups. The volume came down as they whispered and joked. All seemed anxious for the news that Overton held in her hand.
When she finally handed out the white sheets, some students celebrated to themselves as they dragged their index fingers down the list of courses but one girl stared at her transcript quietly. “I hate this,” she mumbled. The frustration of what must have been disappointing scores seemed to get to her. She stormed in Overton’s direction, where other students were beginning to swarm. “Miss! Miss,” she shouted. “This is messed up.”
Overton spoke to the girl with the patience of someone who is accustomed to being yelled at by a mob of teenagers. “You get used to it,” she said in an interview. “That’s not to say that it’s easy.”