School & District Management

One of the Country’s Largest Districts Is Turning School Libraries Into Discipline Rooms

By Elizabeth Heubeck — August 03, 2023 6 min read
Photo of empty school library
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School librarians and media specialists at 28 of Houston Independent School District’s 274 campuses will not be returning to their former jobs this coming school year.

Houston Superintendent Mike Miles, who was appointed in June by the Texas Education Agency as part of a state takeover of the district, authorized the repurposing of former school libraries into “team centers,” where students who misbehave will be sent to watch lessons virtually. That means 28 schools, most of them serving student populations that are either majority-Black, majority-Hispanic/Latino or economically disadvantaged, will not have school libraries in the coming school year.

This decision stands in direct contrast to efforts by the previous superintendent, Millard House II, who actively pushed to get school librarians into every school and, according to longtime district teacher Sarah Rivlin, was well on his way to attaining the goal before the state takeover of the district this spring.

The affected libraries are all in feeder patterns of three historically poor-performing high schools. The district website describes these New Education System Schools as “priority schools ... that will be provided resources and support to dramatically improve outcomes for their students.”

Houston, the largest district in Texas with an estimated 194,000 students, recently recorded its worst reading scores on national assessment tests in nearly two decades.

Nationwide, nearly 20 percent of full-time school librarian positions were eliminated between 2010 and 2019, according to research conducted by SLIDE (short for the School Librarian Investigation—Decline or Evolution?) and funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Between 1999 and 2011, per pupil spending on library materials dropped by nearly half, from $36.33 per student to $8.50 per student, according to federal figures adjusted for inflation. During that same period, though, total per pupil spending rose almost 15 percent to $11,149 a year from $9,729. Here’s a look at what’s behind some of the recent closures, what they mean for students, and who is affected most.

Announcement of closures provoke backlash

Attempts to contact the Houston district for more information about the change were unsuccessful. But literacy advocates and city officials have criticized the move.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner condemned the plan in a press conference. “You cannot have a system where you’re closing libraries for some schools in certain neighborhoods, while more-affluent neighborhood schools have libraries that are open and stocked with books and other resources,” he said.

And the American Library Association and the American Association of School Librarians issued a joint statement urging the district to reverse its decision.

“We implore you to support the learning needs of all HISD students by reinstating school libraries and school librarians for all learners in the Houston Independent School District so that every child shall have equitable opportunities and equal access to an effective and personalized education,” it read.

Individuals, including longtime English teacher Rivlin, currently a high school ESL teacher in the district, said the district’s move will deprive students of an important resource.

“I have taught in a school that has a full-time librarian, and the majority of my career with no full-time librarian,” she said in a phone interview. “When we had that certified librarian—that’s a resource who can provide a huge array of books, and individually work with each kid. When I see kids progress as readers, it’s because they want to read.”

Rivlin said that while she attempts to keep up with new young adult fiction book titles and has spent thousands of her own dollars buying books for students to borrow, her efforts to promote pleasure reading pale in comparison to what a full-time certified school librarian can provide.

“They know exactly what kids like. And if you want to see kids become readers, it’s when they read books that they like,” she said.

Closures elsewhere

Other districts have seen a downward trend in the number of school librarians employed. In 1991, Philadelphia public schools, with 259 schools, had 176 librarians. The district stopped funding school librarian positions in the late 1990’s, shuttering its Office of School Libraries in the mid-2000s, according to The Philadelphia Alliance to Restore School Librarians, or PARSL, an advocacy group.

By the 2012-2013 school year, the number of full-time equivalent school librarians in the district had fallen to 57.6; by 2021-2022, that number had dwindled to the equivalent of one full-time school librarian, consisting of six part-time librarians with other teaching responsibilities.

The decline in the Philadelphia district’s pool of school librarians coincided with lower reading scores for students, according to the District Scorecard. In the 2012-2013 school year, 42 percent of the district’s 3rd through 8th graders were reading at or above proficiency levels, compared to 34 percent in 2021-2022.

Data also suggest that districts serving a high percentage of minority and economically disadvantaged students are most likely to have too few school librarians. A nationwide analysis of school librarians from four consecutive school years (from 2015-2016 to 2018-2019) found that high-poverty districts were more likely to be without a consistent librarian presence than districts with low rates of impoverished students.

Each of the schools included in Houston’s plan to convert school libraries into discipline rooms has a student population that is either majority Black or majority Hispanic/Latino, and the overwhelming majority of students who will be affected by the library closures come from low-income families, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The joint ALA and AASL statement in response to the HISD library closures also referenced the inequity of access to school libraries.

“Studies from across the country show that appropriately staffed school libraries have a positive impact on student achievement,” it said. “In fact, strong school libraries led by certified school librarians have the greatest impact on the very students who would be affected by the changes instituted by HISD.”

“I just think that the equity issue is pretty glaring,” said Rivlin, the Houston ISD teacher. “River Oaks, one of our really wealthy schools, just released a picture of their new, gorgeous state-of-the-art library.”

District leader priorities drive employment decisions

While district leaders frequently cite funding as a reason to eliminate resources, some say that getting rid of school librarians and libraries is more a matter of priorities. The recent HISD decision to transform school libraries into discipline rooms is one such example, according to library advocates.

Rivlin said Houston’s previous superintendent had made it a priority to place a school librarian in every school, a successful initiative that House touted in a news conference this March.
“There is so much volatility of employment of school librarians because key leadership positions change,” said Debra E. Kachel, the project director for SLIDE and a member of the PARSL core planning team.

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