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‘Library time’ has new meaning for a Gloucester school’s students

Sawyer Free Library’s children’s librarian, Justine Vitale, reading "The Leaf Thief” by Alice Hemming to first-grade students from Veterans Memorial Elementary School in Gloucester.Tracy Davis/Sawyer Free Library

Public libraries have long been part of the fabric of education in local communities, but in Gloucester that mission is taking on a new dimension these days.

Since September, the Sawyer Free Library’s children’s room has been regularly hosting classes from Veterans Memorial Elementary School, whose 215 students are without a school library because of an ongoing building project.

Students from the K-5 school visit the children’s room for their library time, making the short walk with their teachers from the former St. Ann School on Pleasant Street — Veterans Memorial’s temporary home during construction — to the public library on Dale Avenue. St. Ann, which closed in 2013, has no library space.

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“It’s been great,” said Matt Fusco, principal of Veterans Memorial. “The kids are really enthusiastic about it.”

Christy Rosso, Sawyer Free’s head of children’s services, said the arrangement is in keeping with the library’s “strong connection with the community and with the schools.”

“We work with the schools on summer reading and know so many of the families and the children,” she said. With Veterans Memorial now lacking its own library, “we just thought it’s so important that children have the opportunity to have books and reading.”

In October, the city broke ground on a new elementary school combining the Veterans Memorial and East Gloucester elementary schools. The Sawyer Free will continue to host Veterans Memorial library classes until the new 440-student school opens in September 2023.

“We are thrilled to welcome the students and teachers of Veterans Elementary school here,” the library’s director, Jenny Benedict, said in e-mailed comments. “The Sawyer Free Library is a key partner in our community’s education system, complementing classroom instruction, and offering supplementary resources that engage and inspire students to develop a love of learning.”

Sawyer Free previously provided school library services for the St. Ann School and more recently for the West Parish Elementary School when it was temporarily housed at St. Ann during construction of its current building, completed in 2016.

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Each class visits the library once every two weeks — sharing space in the children’s room with any other patrons that may be there. Library staff read books aloud to the students, and the children select books to check out. Staff can also help students with research projects.

“For a younger class, for example, we might show them some books about different kinds of animals, such as woodland animals you would find in this area,” Rosso said. “Or we might help them find information on the computers. "

Sawyer Free is providing children with their own library cards, in part to encourage them to become regular library users.

“Kids can bring their cards home to their families,” Rosso said. “They can use the card even when they are not at school to get other things they might enjoy from the library.”

An added plus to the partnership is that Veterans Memorial until now has not had regular “library time” periods. In the old building, students could borrow books before school and when they came to the library for computer labs. But they had no scheduled time in the library, which was run by volunteers.

Fusco said the chance to offer students regular library time is especially helpful given the dislocation they are now experiencing.

“It’s not easy to see your old school torn down and everyone having to move out. Kids thrive on structure. So this is nice to give them something extra that they had never had before,” he said.

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Rosso said the partnership also has offered the library’s staff a welcome opportunity to connect with young patrons in person after being limited to virtual interactions due to the pandemic.

“We are just very excited and happy to have children in the library again and to not just be watching them on a video screen,” she said.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.