Above, an old air conditioning unit was converted into the “Barrett Space Station” inside the school’s new Reading Room.

Like students everywhere, students at Charles W. Barrett Elementary STEAM Academy School sometimes struggle with reading. Principal Jera Turner believed it would help struggling students to have a space of their own. Somewhere they could learn at their own pace, while sparking their curiosity about the world.

That hope came true recently when an unused room was transformed into a reading room – a place where students could improve at reading on their timelines.

“Just don’t call this a library,” Turner said. “This is the upper-grade reading room.”

Students and volunteers helped turn an unused room into the reading room.

With a team of community members and school volunteers, Kaiser Permanente staff helped turn the room into an engaging space for the elementary school’s fourth- and fifth-graders.

“We are happy to have been invited to transform this space into a special place that encourages a love of reading and learning,” said Gerry Farrell, director of Kaiser’s Southern California Educational Theatre. “We hope it will continue to inspire students at this school for many generations to come.”

Kaiser’s Educational Theater donated 4,000 books in both Spanish and English, covering a wide range of topics. The walls are painted with murals, representing California’s various eco-systems, including an ocean, a forest, a desert and hills. An old air conditioning unit has been transformed into a space station.

There is a special area devoted to heroes of science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. It includes photographs of recording artist Kendrick Lamar and singer Della Reese, both well-known and native to Southern California. The room also pays tribute to historical figures like George Washington Carver and astronaut Mae Jemison.

“We wanted a comfortable, student-centered environment where they felt comfortable coming in to pick up reading materials that interested them,” Turner said. “What this room means and conveys to the students is that this is where they can dream and plan for the future. It is a safe space, and they have made it there own.”

Dr. Wanda Austin, the former president and CEO of The Aerospace Corp., a leading architect for the nation’s national security space programs, gave away signed copies of her book and spoke on the Reading Room’s opening day.

A volunteer helped to paint a desert mural inside the school’s new Reading Room.

Unlike the school’s library. The reading room is informal and is not grouped by reading levels. It features desks, soft chairs and spaces where students can sit comfortably on the floor if they choose. Whereas the library has scheduled hours where students go every other week, the reading room is open every day during recess or after school. Turner said she sees students spending their free time in the reading room rather than playing outside.

“I’m so excited to see students reading in there,” she said. “It’s pretty special.”

The reading room has not gone unnoticed by the school’s younger students. Several days ago Turner received a petition from third-graders who believe they too should be able to use the reading room. Moved by their passion and willingness to effect change, Turner changed the rules to allow third-graders to visit the room.

“It’s impressive,” she said. “The changes we have seen already mean great things for our school and success everywhere with promoting literacy.”