In Our Communities

New Library Opens Minds to Learning

Billy Kearney joined Charles Hart Middle School in Washington, D.C., as principal in December of 2008 with a mission: transform the violence-prone school into an oasis of order, peace, and learning for students living in the District of Columbia's Ward 8, a neighborhood where nearly a third of all families live in poverty.

"To the untrained eye, the way our kids engage with one another can seem very violent," Kearney says. "Our kids experience a lot of violence in their lives. There is a lot of mistreatment. The only way they know how to communicate with one another is to tear one another down. They simply do not have the experience of what it is to be nice, not to be mad, not to be frustrated."

Kearney is working to change that, through a rigorous focus on inspiring students and shifting mindsets.

"Our kids, unfortunately, do not get enough praise," Kearney says. "They don't understand or experience a lot of success. They do not know how not to be afraid of success. The culture of fear is prevalent and pronounced here. If someone fears you, they respect you. We are turning that upside down.

"Even though college may seem like a stretch in a neighborhood where one out of every five adults lacks a high school diploma or GED, Hart Middle School is doing its best to make sure that its students aspire to a pursuit of higher education. The school's slogan "Where every day, every child is college bound" is repeated daily to help plant and grow the seed.

When Kearney joined Hart Middle School in 2008, the school lacked even the most basic elements that could play a role in inspiring students to think beyond the bounds of their current situation. The school's library, for example, had been destroyed through years of violence and conflict in the school. To Kearney, one of the best things he could do for his students was to rebuild the library, creating a space that felt safe and opened up the world for them.

To create a new library, Kearney partnered with The Heart of America Foundation and Capital One. Capital One's relationship with The Heart of America Foundation began in 2001. Since that time, the two have partnered to revitalize more than 40 libraries for children in low-income communities across the country. In partnership with The Heart of America Foundation, Capital One has donated books valued at more than $9.5 million to over 400,000 students.

In addition, Capital One associates play an important role, participating in volunteer programs that enable them to read to students, collect and distribute books to students for their personal libraries and help transform tired libraries into vibrant spaces.

The Hart Middle School library had been out of commission for so many years that many of the children had never experienced a school library. Working with the Heart of America Foundation, five dozen Capital One associates volunteered to build the students a new library, assembling furniture, cleaning and stocking shelves, painting walls, and sorting books. The result is a new, modern library that includes everything from computers to e-readers. Capital One also provided more than 1,000 books to the school and a handful of books to each of the 530 students to take home to begin building a personal home library.

"The library is now an oasis where children can escape the harshness of their lives, enjoy some private `me time', and learn about people, places and cultures different from their own," says Kearney, who believes that books provide a window to other worlds and help to encourage different and better life choices. During his teaching career, Kearney has became increasingly passionate about addressing disparities between what he calls "the haves and have nots," children like his students who live in poverty.

The opening of the new library is just one step in that process. When it first opened, "it was like Christmas in October," says Kearney.

When students walked in the door, some started crying because they could not believe the work that had been done. — Billy Kearney

Together, Capital One and The Heart of America Foundation have transformed the libraries at Ferebee-Hope Elementary School and Ballou High School in the Ward 8 community to ensure that students have access to an inviting place to read and quality books from kindergarten through graduation.