‘Growing our readers’: How the Sheridan district has revived its once-closed high school library

For years, the Sheridan district’s high school library was just empty space — a few shelves, no books, no staff.

Now, the library is thriving. Students hang out there during lunch or other free periods. They read, play games, and can even take a literature class.

The space has transformed from bare to buzzing.

“We just had old tables and chairs,” said Jenn Alevy, the digital teacher librarian. “Throughout the five years, our space has changed so much.”

Among the changes: new furniture, including a puzzle table hand-built by a student in the school’s former woodshop class.

While some schools are having to cut librarians or letting libraries languish as school budgets are strained and others are grappling with book bans, the Sheridan library continues to grow because of voter-approved funds passed in 2018.

A close up of a high school girl wearing a blue uniform with large hoops and earbuds sitting at a table in a library.
Trenity Briscoe, 16, works on her book project during a class in the library at Sheridan High School. (Helen H. Richardson / The Denver Post)

Pat Sandos, the outgoing superintendent, had just been hired in 2018 when he decided to put the promise of school librarians into the proposed mill levy tax request. Before the tax measure, the district used about $40,000 from reserves to get the space ready.

“I just couldn’t believe we didn’t have a library at the high school,” Sandos said. “It’s the hub of the school. So much goes on there.”

When Sandos talked to people in the community, many didn’t know the 300-student high school had been left without a library after the county library pulled out of the school into its own building.

Having the county library in the district was complicated, leaders said, because it was difficult to control who was in the school building just for the public library. And, Sandos said, having the library nearby was not the same as having an in-house teacher librarian who could collaborate with teachers and build relationships with students.

That’s what Alevy has done.

“There’s so much opportunity, it’s critical,” Sandos said.

Leticia Salazar, a senior at Sheridan High School, said Alevy has helped her through many rough times, including a recent death in her family. Last semester, she was a library assistant. Now, she just hangs out at the library because she finds it a safe and peaceful place.

“She’s awesome,” Salazar said, of Alevy. “And she got me into reading.”

When Alevy was hired in 2019 after voters approved the tax request, she started reviving the library by ordering books and working on a three-year plan to create more integration between technology and learning.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, schools went to remote learning, the library shut down – and Alevy’s plan to incorporate more digital learning became a plan she had to integrate right away.

She was the go-to for teachers on any technology questions, and helped many navigate remote learning software.

Now that schools have gone back to in-person learning, she still tries to collaborate with teachers, recommending books for various lessons they plan and suggesting ways to incorporate reading or digital learning when appropriate.

A group of high school students play a card game at a table with bookshelves in the background.
Students hang out at the Sheridan High School library during lunch or other free periods, including to play games. (Helen H. Richardson / The Denver Post)

Maegan Daigler, the district’s executive director of assessment & technology, said the mill levy funds pay for the salaries of librarians at the district schools and funds each year are also used to help grow the library’s collection.

The goal is to grow the book collection about 10% each year as funds allow, she said.

“It’s a priority,” Daigler said.

During the time the library was closed due to remote learning, Alevy ordered digital books for students to check out, but has since found that students prefer physical copies of books to read.

The library now has more than 4,500 books, including a few hundred Spanish books, many Stephen King novels, the popular Colleen Hoover titles, and lots of manga.

For many of the Spanish books, Alevy likes to get the English and Spanish versions so students can read them side-by-side if they like. She also gets some audiobooks that can be a helpful addition when students are trying to learn English.

Three high school students sit at a table playing a card game with a decorated wall in the background.
From left to right Students Aidan Cordova, 17, Rock Himebaugh, 17, and Isaac Rosales, 16, play the card game UNO in the library during their lunch break at Sheridan High School. (Helen H. Richardson / The Denver Post)

The students in newcomer classes check out lots of books, she said. About a third of the school’s 300 students are English learners.

“Students will challenge themselves when they’re picking up a book,” Alevy said. “If it gets them to read, I will buy them.”

This year Alevy started offering a new elective class, Introduction to Literature, where students read, write about what they read, and then will promote the books they read in the library.

“We’re growing our readers,” Alevy said. “It’s slowly working.”

Each of the 10 students in the class picked a theme and planned out which books they would read this semester to fit that theme.

One of the school’s most avid readers, Kaitlyn Miller, a 15-year-old sophomore, has already read six books for the class this semester. She’s focusing her project on two themes: mystical creatures, and how people feel when they lose someone they love.

As Miller described her project, she noted: “I probably need to get some more books.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the last names of Leticia Salazar and Rock Himebaugh, and to reflect that the Sheridan library has more than 4,500 books in its collection now.

Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at yrobles@chalkbeat.org.