School, library seek walkway

Downtown The two have an established connection, but they want a tangible one, sans fence.

By Elisabeth Dyer, Times Staff Writer
Published February 22, 2008

Prekindergarten teachers Luzina Purdue and Kaysonia Hollis take their students to see puppet shows and hear folktales every Tuesday.

The 3- and 4-year-olds leave their classrooms at B.T. Washington Elementary and walk along Estelle Street and then Nebraska Avenue to the Robert W. Saunders Sr. Public Library.

The hike along busy roads requires volunteers to supervise and field trip permission slips. When it rains, the trip is canceled.

But it could be so simple. The school and library share a property line with only a chain link fence separating the two.

Fred Hearns, an alumnus of the school who started the Saunders Foundation, proposed a solution several years ago. Connect the school and library with a covered walkway.

Now, talks are under way to move the project forward, despite recent budget cuts.

"We need this," said Hollis, the pre-K teacher. The link would not only help students; it would be a tool to entice their parents - many of whom don't have high school degrees - into the library.

Library and school officials plan to meet today to explore options for financing and constructing the walkway. They don't know at this point how much the project would cost.

"If the library could secure money from the county and the school district would handle construction, that would speed it up," said Joe Stines, director of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library system.

This year's county budget cuts crimped several library projects, including a planned renovation of the Saunders library. Library board members hope to use the little money they have to buy property for new construction while land costs are low.

The library board will meet Thursday and may add the walkway to its unfunded-needs list. If the cost isreasonable, it could be funded this year and perhaps built this summer, Stines said.

B.T. Washington, with about 500 students, ranked as the highest poverty school in Hillsborough last year. A literature-rich environment can help young children reach their learning potential, teachers say.

The library system has a similar partnership with Egypt Lake Elementary and another is planned at Sulphur Springs Elementary. Open after school hours, the libraries are heavily geared toward school-age children and their extended families.

"The whole purpose is to encourage family reading," Stines said.

Teachers at Washington have given each student his own library card at Saunders. The school has its own 4-year-old media center, stocked with about 10,000 books. It would continue to operate if the walkway is added.

Librarians from Saunders attend school events and tailor programs to students, such as a $1,000 grant for making model airplanes with students, and professional storytellers and puppeteers. The connection with the library strengthens school resources, said principal Jason Pepe.

He sees the walkway as symbolic.

Standing in the library recently, he estimated the distance to the school at 100 yards.

"It would be a bridge with the community," he said.

A $7.8-million proposal in 2005 to renovate the Saunders library included a theater with black history displays and a second-floor children's section with a walking bridge that connected to the second floor of B.T. Washington.

That project would have allowed the school to move its media center to Saunders and use the space for other purposes.

But that renovation is on hold, and school officials are hoping for the covered walkway as a short-term alternative to the bridge.

Budget cuts have pushed the renovation from fifth to seventh place on the library construction list.

"Our dreams have been put on hold," Hearns said.

Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at edyer@sptimes.com or 226-3321.

"It would be a bridge with the community."

Jason Pepe, principal of B.T. Washington Elementary, referring to a covered walkway