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Atlanta students will gain broad access to library system this fall

Starting this fall, all Atlanta Public Schools students will have access to the Fulton County Public Library system — whether or not they have a library card.

Library officials are changing the rules in the hopes of removing any barriers that prevent students from using Fulton’s facilities. The move echoes efforts in Gwinnett and Cobb counties and is intended to provide equal access to information for students across the district. They will be able to use online materials like e-books, virtual tutors and language classes, and check out books, movies or CDs at library branches. All that’s needed is a student ID. There will be no late fines on unreturned materials lent to students using their school IDs.

“What keeps parents away, now it’s gone,” said Patrice Laird-Walker, the media services coordinator for APS. “It helps bridge the home-school connection.”

The district has 52,000 students. While the library system doesn’t know how many already have library cards, Laird-Walker said she expects far more of them to use the taxpayer-funded services now, with a broader ability to access services. Dubbed the CLASS Project, Laird-Walker hopes it will expand the use of the library, will help shrink the literacy gap in Atlanta and invite children to read for pleasure.

“Before, if you needed to go to the library, someone needed to take you,” said Gabriel Morley, the Fulton library director. “Now, we’re connecting students with resources immediately. They have instant accessibility.”

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In many cases, the library system has more resources than schools, said Mary Barbee, the director of media services and technology training at Gwinnett County Public Schools.

“I think this is a leveler,” Barbee said of Gwinnett’s program, Branch Out, which launched in 2016. “This type of partnership really represents the fact that we’re trying to be smart about how we provide resources. We’re broadening access to what we have and giving more choices. There was never a downside that anybody could unearth.”

Since Branch Out began, students have opened nearly 149,000 accounts, with their parents’ permission, said Clifford Ibarrondo, a spokesperson for the Gwinnett library system.

In Cobb, Holly Frilot said, parents have to decline to participate. Frilot, the supervisor of library media education for the Cobb schools, said fewer than 10 students declined library access when the Library PASS program started in January.

Through the collaboration, she said, students have access to more than 630,000 additional resources that were not available in their own libraries.

“The more access kids have, the more they have at their fingertips for learning,” Frilot said. “We’re providing access to quality resources, not just whatever you can find on Google.”

That’s also important for Morley, the Fulton library director.

“Ultimately, the goal is to increase literacy, to increase learning capacity,” he said. “We want smarter, better-educated and more well-rounded citizens.”

Morley imagines QR codes on classroom doors that students can scan as they exit, downloading an e-book that they will need for class, so there are no longer instances of students not doing the reading because they can’t afford a book, or can’t get to a place where they can obtain it. In time, he hopes for corporate sponsorship of grade-specific collections that could be directly tailored for the classroom.

The APS collaboration will go live in September for students, and teacher access will follow soon after. The library intends to work with Fulton County Schools to expand access after this year.

“Kids, when they leave schools, are disconnected from resources,” Laird-Walker, with APS, said. “This is a game-changer for kids who walk off campus and have no support at home, or it’s limited.”

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