Reprinted from the Houston Chronicle HISD's Miles will convert some libraries into discipline areas, eliminate librarians


July 25, 2023 

Sherrie Curry walked past an unused library at Shadydale Elementary School each day for years, watching books collect dust on the shelves. 

It bothered the teacher enough that she went back to school to earn a master's degree in library science and spent the next four years rejuvenating the library with hundreds of new books purchased through grants, STEM activities and bean bag chairs placed among seasonal decorations. Curry sang and danced anytime boxes of new books arrived, hoping they would help cultivate in her students the passion for reading that has helped her navigate life since her own childhood.  

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When she left the role this spring, burned out from juggling extra responsibilities, Curry knew she was leaving the library in good shape. The book check-out rate had more than tripled under her watch, she said, with students cramming books into their backpacks to carry home. She left a welcome note for the next librarian and hoped her successor would keep building on her years-long push to instill among students a strong reading culture.  

Instead, Curry was crushed this summer to learn that her former students and scores more Black and Hispanic children attending school in northeast Houston will return next month to campuses with no librarians or even libraries. 

"When you start taking away access to the library, you’re taking away access to information," she said. "At the end of the day, it’s just going to make the kids feel like reading is less important." 

Sherrie Curry a former Shadydale Elementary school librarian wearing her book earrings at Jesse H. Jones Park and Nature Center on Thursday, July 20, 2023 in Humble.
Sherrie Curry a former Shadydale Elementary school librarian wearing her book earrings at Jesse H. Jones Park and Nature Center on Thursday, July 20, 2023 in Humble.Karen Warren/Staff photographer

Superintendent Mike Miles, appointed in June by the Texas Education Agency to lead Houston ISD, will eliminate librarians and media specialists from the 28 campuses under his New Education System and an additional 57 aligned schools that opted into a version of the whole-scale systemic reform plan that aims to lift student achievement and improve the quality of instruction. 

Miles said the former library spaces at most NES and NES-aligned campuses will instead be converted into "Teams centers" — formerly called Zoom rooms — where students who misbehave in the classroom will be sent to watch the lesson virtually and others can work alone or in groups for differentiated instruction. 

The book collections will remain on the shelves at the schools with no librarians, according to the district, with students able to take them home through an honor system or access them during before and after school hours. 

The new policy marks a big departure from the priorities outlined by the previous HISD administration led by former superintendent Millard House II, who aimed to put a librarian or media specialist at every campus in the district under his five-year strategic plan and invested millions of dollars in pandemic relief funding to purchase new library books. 

“There was this great surge of improvement and excitement about the libraries, so it was so discouraging to take that step backwards,” said Anne Furse, a library advocate and co-founder of a group called Friends of HISD Libraries. 

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Debbie Hall, a former librarian and long-time library advocate, said learning about the new administration’s plans to nix librarians at high-need campuses “was a hurtful punch,” especially after witnessing something of a renaissance for campus libraries that benefited from big investments in recent years. The former superintendent's focus on libraries stemmed from advocacy efforts and community input that House gathered through a series of listening sessions. 

“Every meeting, there was somebody there speaking about the importance of reading and libraries – and he listened, and he acted,” Hall said. 

As a result, the district made progress last year in accomplishing its goal to expand library services, according to data compiled by Hall and other library advocates who founded a group called Students Need Libraries. Hall has been tracking the rise and fall of library staffing for decades using information from the HISD Library Services department. 

During the last school year, 88 percent of campuses had a certified librarian or teacher working in the library, up from 48 percent the prior school year, according to the advocacy group. Only 9 percent of campuses offered no library services last year, down from roughly a third in the 2021-2022 school year.

HISD expanded its digital resources and academic databases as well, according to the district, with ten times more eBooks checked out in March compared to the same time last year. 

The district also pledged to help nearly 80 people earn their master's degree in library science or school librarian certification over the summer, although one person in the cohort who wished to remain anonymous said HISD revoked the financial support in mid-May for unclear reasons, leaving only five people enrolled in the graduate program. 

The recent expansion was backed by increased investments in the libraries and literary programs as well, with some schools bringing to life libraries that had sat empty for years. In the past two years, HISD spent more than $15 million on purchasing new library books with ESSER — Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief — funds, according to the district. 

All but four of the campuses now designated as NES schools had a librarian or media specialist last school year, according to the data published online by Students Need Libraries. 

OPINION: Librarians do a lot more than check out books, Superintendent Miles

Although their positions were eliminated under the new plan, those personnel were given the opportunity to work in libraries at other non-NES campuses in the district, Miles said. 

"I think we’re short librarians, so I'm sure they’ll be able to find a position," he said. 

Miles said the staffing model for NES and NES-aligned schools does not include a librarian because the district must prioritize resources to meet specific outcomes, including closing the achievement gap, raising student proficiency and preparing kids for their future. His administration is raising teacher salaries and providing incentive bonuses to teachers and administrators at the campuses targeted for reform. 

“Right now, we are going to try to raise achievement, we’re going to try to have high-quality instruction, so the focus is on those teachers who can do that,” he said. “If you have to prioritize resources, then you want to get a teacher who can deliver the science of reading versus a librarian.” 

Miles questioned whether the House administration’s plan to expand librarians to more campuses was tied to any specific outcome, noting that schools should be judged by their results rather than their “inputs.” 

“Any big initiative needs to come with metrics for success,” he said. “We’re not doing things that are just popular. We’re not doing things that we’ve always done, we’re not doing things that are just fun, we’re not doing things that are just nice to have or good, unless we can measure its success.” 

Some librarians, library advocates and families, however, believe the plan is short-sighted and contrary to the apparent goal of improving literacy. 

Brooke King, chair of the Texas Association of School Librarians, said certified librarians are highly qualified teachers who make a positive impact on student learning, especially in economically disadvantaged student populations.

“It’s disappointing to say the least that this is the plan that’s going forward, especially since HISD had been making lots of progress over the last few years,” she said. “It’s sad to see that being undone.”

King, a middle school librarian in a Houston-area district, said she loves finding the perfect book for students, especially those who claim to be non-readers. She hosts a lunchtime book club for students and collaborates with teachers to integrate technology into their lessons or help them find resources for certain topics.

Last year, for example, King helped a teacher find a graphic novel series for a class full of English language learners.

“The kids devoured it in like two days – and these are brand new English readers,” she said. “I had to start looking outside of my library to find them enough books to read.”  

HISD CUTS: HISD to cut more than 2,300 positions as part of Mike Miles' central office reorganization

Librarians also help build on the reading skills learned in the classroom, according to library advocates, by offering reading programs and competitions, helping kids choose books that match their interests and reading levels, and cultivating a love for reading. 

“The library is the lab – this is where you can practice (reading),” said Hall, the advocate and former librarian. “Kids need to have books that they choose, that they want to read, that they’re going to learn from.” 

Many kids do not have access to a public library, books at home or the ability to purchase books at a store, said Furse, another advocate, especially in low-income neighborhoods. 

“These are kids who really don’t have other sources of books that are easily accessible,” she said. “It’s really sad because you go in and see these really bright-eyed, enthusiastic kids who really want to learn and read – and they don’t have that resource that the affluent kids have.”

Libraries offer a tranquil environment where students can study, decompress and be themselves, she said.

“The library is a sanctuary and a refuge of so many kids,” Furse said. 



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