Learning was never this much fun for Matt Bonner. Ten new computers in the middle school library. Some $7,000 worth of new books. New furnishings and board games. Life-size portraits of NBA basketball players on the walls.
The son of a New Hampshire elementary school teacher, Bonner expressed wonder at the new NBA Cares Learn & Play Center at Wheatley Middle School, and then told a gathering of students: “I would be living in there if I were you.”
The students applauded. Their newly-christened library underwent an astonishing transformation with the help of the NBA, the Spurs, State Farm, the San Antonio Independent School District and the United Way/East Side Promise Neighborhood and SAISD Foundation/Mike Mitchell Family Fund.
The massive renovation project, which includes an upgraded gym, will enhance learning for low-income students who face a range of challenges. Principal Mary Olison estimates that 75 percent of Wheatley students do not have computers at home, which makes it difficult to assign homework.
“Literacy is a challenge within the United States and a challenge for these students who are somewhat deprived as far as resources are concerned,” Olison says. “This Learn & Play Center is going to give them a great opportunity to come and learn on the computers. They’ll be able to read novels, increase their literacy so they can pass our state test and improve their self-confidence.”
Olison predicts a significant impact. “I expect my sixth graders, who came in reading on the third and fourth grade level, to be reading on their grade level within the next year,” she says. “It can make that much of a difference.”
Spurs Sports & Entertainment enjoys a strong relationship with Wheatley, an East Side neighbor of the AT&T Center. As part of the Big Brothers, Big Sisters Inspire U Workplace program, 22 Spurs staff members mentor eighth grade students from the school. Once a month, students visit their mentors at the AT&T Center, eat lunch and build relationships.
On Thursday, Bonner, guard Patty Mills and Spurs Hall of Famer David Robinson read to students inside the Learn & Play Center. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, General Manager R.C Buford and guard Danny Green played games with kids. Former Spurs, such as Sean Elliott and George Gervin, also spent time with Wheatley youth.
The library buzzed with excitement. Media conducted interviews, took pictures and shot video for local news stations. On walls and support beams were life-size images of every Spurs player on the roster.
“When the students walk into this library and see all the players on the walls, they will have someone to look up to,” Olison says. “And they will say, ‘One day I will be on that wall.’”
Olison just completed her second year at Wheatley. Test scores are rising. The library had only six computers for students in three grades. Now it has 16.
When Olison learned that NBA Cares had selected her library for a renovation, she knew her students would benefit. But she did not realize the scope and amenities of the Learn & Play Center.
“I had no idea it was of this magnitude,” she said at Thursday’s grand opening. “I’m overwhelmed.”
School has closed but the new library will be open all summer. When students return in the fall, they will be able to use the library after school until 7 p.m. They can do homework and participate in recreational activities. Dinner and snacks will be provided.
“This means so much to my students,” Olison says. “They are humble students, caring students. They want to learn and they are so excited, This is like Christmas.”