Whatcom Cares: Paula Friedman’s project helps students adopt a shelf at Kulshan Middle School library

A library aide at Kulshan Middle School has devised a program that makes it fun for students to be book nerds — and keeps the library clean and organized at the same time.

Paula Friedman’s adopt-a-shelf effort at the school library works just like similar programs for parks and highways. Kids pledge to be responsible for specific shelves in the library, checking them daily. They’re allowed to personalize the space and feature a particular book they like or think others will enjoy. Many of the students chose their shelves based on their favorite authors or books, she said.

“It gets kids into the library, and it gives them a chance to be a part of something,” said Kate Ackerson, the school librarian. “These are kids who like to read, they like books, and they have some ownership over the library.”

Friedman, a part-time para educator, rewards students for keeping their assigned shelves neat, clean and organized with bookmarks and “Book Bucks,” a kind of scrip that the students can use at the school’s occasional book fairs.

“My goal was to get the students vested and interested in the library,” said Friedman, who moved to Bellingham with her husband 12 years ago after working as a child psychologist in a hospital.

“That career was all about working with children on their level, rather than as little adults. I would explain (an illness or medical procedure) to the children so they could understand what was happening to them,” whether they were in the ER for trauma or facing surgery for an illness.

In addition, she worked for five years at Options High in the Bellingham alternative school’s continuing education program. This is her second year at Kulshan, where she does book check-ins and helps students find books.

“The middle school students are just getting confident looking up a book, learning what a genre is,” she said.

She devised the program as a way to help the student participants learn a sense of responsibility. She had no idea that it would prove so popular.

“This thing snowballed to the point where the entire library has been adopted,” Friedman said. “They just feel so proud of themselves. The kids just feel so good about what they are doing.”

Friedman makes sure the students conduct a daily check of their shelves, and gives them the freedom to be creative — such as highlighting a book by setting it out for visual effect. She’s been impressed by the pride they take in their duties.

“I’m trying to encourage them to think of it as pre-job training,” Friedman said.

Coworkers says that Freidman is known around the school for her for compassion and for making small gestures that make a big difference.

Ackerson said she can see how much Kulshan students enjoy their new responsibility.

“It’s not what they say, it’s the eagerness in the way they show up in the morning,” Ackerman said. “They get really geeky excited about cleaning up a bookshelf. It makes them feel really special, like they work there.”