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Houston's plan to convert some school libraries into discipline centers is criticized


In Houston, Texas, dozens of public schools won't have librarians and traditional libraries when classes start later this month. It's part of a controversial reform effort in the state's largest school district. The new superintendent says schools in working-class areas need good teachers more than they need librarians. But critics are blasting the plan, worried that students won't have the same access to fully equipped libraries. Houston Public Media's Dominic Anthony Walsh reports.

DOMINIC ANTHONY WALSH, BYLINE: Mike Miles is an unusual superintendent. He was not hired by the local school board.



WALSH: Hi. Dominic.

MILES: Dominic, I'm Mike. Nice to meet you.

WALSH: Instead, the Texas Education Agency, which oversees public education in the state, appointed him to lead Houston schools in June. The agency also replaced the entire elected school board with hand-picked managers. This is allowed under state law because one school, out of more than 270 in the system, failed to meet academic standards for several years in a row.

MILES: We're going to do wholescale systemic reform.

WALSH: Superintendent Miles came in hot, announcing reforms to about 30 schools on his first day.

MILES: We're going to really provide them a level of support that they haven't received before and turn around those schools and really raise the quality of instruction.

WALSH: The sweeping changes include longer instructional days, lessons scripted by planners, not teachers, and new evaluations for educators that tie pay to academic performance. Miles's plan is controversial, but nearly 60 additional schools chose to join the program, bringing the total to 85 campuses. That's about a third of the state's largest district. They're almost all in working-class Black and Latino communities. Most of those schools will lose their traditional libraries and librarians.

MILES: We're staffing them in a way to get the outcomes we want. So the outcomes we want are reading, writing, math achievement, proficiency. We want to narrow the gaps. And then we want to prepare kids for the year 2035.

SYLVESTER TURNER: Yes, some students are struggling and need additional support and attention.

WALSH: Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner blasted the plan.

TURNER: But the answer isn't throwing out libraries so that no student in that school can have access to a campus library, especially not in neighborhoods where libraries are needed the most.

WALSH: Superintendent Miles says that students will still be able to access books and that the libraries themselves will become what he calls hubs of differentiated learning. That means that students who are doing well in class will go there for advanced learning. Students who disrupt class will also be sent to these team centers, formerly known as libraries, where they can rejoin their classmates virtually. He hopes the plan will reduce the number of suspensions, but community members are concerned.

SUZANNE LYONS: A library is more than a box of books.

WALSH: Retired school librarian Suzanne Lyons says the plan doesn't make sense if reading is important.

LYONS: A major component of being a school librarian is being able to support the curriculum, support the teachers, of course, increase the love of reading.

WALSH: Parents and students are also angry that at 28 of the reformed schools, every educator had to reapply for their jobs. That's led to significant turnover.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We don't have a say. No one's asked us.

WALSH: At a community center in a predominantly Latino part of northeast Houston, students and parents like Nancy Coronado met up to protest the changes.

NANCY CORONADO: (Through interpreter) We don't want other teachers. We want the same teachers because they've been our second family.

WALSH: Her sixth grade son, Ricardo Delgado, hopes his favorite reading teacher doesn't lose her position.

RICARDO DELGADO: I'm feeling sad because, like, I want more students to go to that class because they will feel nice because she makes everything fun.

WALSH: Superintendent Miles plans to expand the reforms to 150 schools over the next few years. That's more than half the district. Opponents will have a tough time pushing back. His bosses, the state-appointed school board of managers, don't have to face elections.

For NPR News, I'm Dominic Anthony Walsh in Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: August 2, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
The headline on an earlier version of this story mistakenly used the word "disciple" instead of "discipline."
Dominic Anthony Walsh is a Trinity University student studying communication and communication management. He is the student director of programming for Indie Overnight on Trinity's KRTU 91.7 FM, where he got his broadcasting start as creator and host of The Hippie Coffee Hours in 2017. Starting in the fall of 2019, Dominic will serve as platforms coordinator and podcast producer for the Trinitonian — Trinity's campus newspaper, where he began his journalism career in 2017 as a feature reporter. Prior to enrolling at Trinity, Dominic spent six years in the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio. He formed his first rock band in 2015 with other youth musicians from YOSA. Since then, he has stayed active in the local music community as a member of Elnuh, Sugar Skulls, and Samantha Flowers, among other projects. Dominic will graduate from Trinity in 2020 and intends to continue working as a broadcast journalist.