Will Houston Schools Really "Close Libraries and Turn them into Discipline Centers"?

Will Houston Schools Really "Close Libraries and Turn them into Discipline Centers"?
HISD Superintendent Mike Miles at the Sugar Grove Academy family meeting on July 27

On July 31, Mayor Sylvester Turner held a press conference to condemn what he described as HISD Superintendent Miles’ plan to “close libraries and turn them into discipline centers.”

Turner’s phrasing—“close libraries”—has been repeated by media outlets. The Houston Chronicle recently used a similar phrase—“dismantle libraries.”

But such phrases could be misleading. They imply that Miles is removing books from schools or keeping books behind lock and key, not allowing students to access them.

If that was true, then many community members might agree with Robert Lihalakha, a former HISD teacher and owner of Attul Care Group, who attended the Sugar Grove Academy family meeting in Sharpstown on July 27. Before the meeting, Lihalakha said he’s heard of a lot of crazy things in his life, but Miles’ library plan “takes the cake.”

At the time, Lihalakha was under the impression that Miles was “closing” libraries. But what’s really happening?

On one hand, at the Sugar Grove press conference, Miles said, “It’s true that we’re not going to have traditional libraries.” At the 28 NES schools (including Sugar Grove), Miles is removing librarians. (It is unclear what will happen at the 57 NES-aligned schools, including Jane Long Academy, Las Americas, and Bonham Elementary.)

On the other hand, Miles also said that he isn’t removing library books from the shelves: “Books are still there. Kids can still read them.”

According to Miles, the principal and teachers of each school will get to decide how they want to manage the books, but in the past, his schools have allowed students to use the books before school, during Team Center operation, and after school, without needing to check them out. If students wanted to take books home temporarily, they could just tell their teacher.

Miles also said that, through the Amplify curriculum, he’s actually bringing more books to schools.

In other words, Miles is removing librarians, not books. Phrases like "closing libraries” could give people the wrong impression.

But is that true on ground level at every NES school? Today, a front desk employee at Sugar Grove confirmed that the school librarian is gone, but the employee did not know what was happening to the books. Principal Noe Ortega did not immediately reply to the Sharpener’s request for comment.

Even if the books remain, Lihalakha worried that the change will create a “stigma” around libraries that might deter students from visiting them: “The kid who beat you up or stole from you could be sitting in the same place you want to rent a book from.”

Robert Lihalakha at the Sugar Grove family meeting on July 27

But at the family meeting, Miles said that Team Centers are not just “discipline centers,” as Mayor Turner described them. Miles said they are about “differentiating instruction.”

After the first forty-five minutes of direct classroom instruction, said Miles, students will be separated into four groups based on proficiency. The accelerated students will go to the Team Center, where they can work—individually or in pairs—on packets or worksheets. The students who struggle to understand the lesson concepts will stay in the classroom with the teacher.

It remains to be seen how the Team Centers will work in practice at individual schools.

The more central issue may be the value of librarians. Miles said that he has to choose what to prioritize, and he would rather pay for high-quality reading teachers than librarians. But a July 25 Chronicle article highlighted the stories of two librarians, Sherrie Curry and Brooke King, who have helped students from their schools invest in reading.

Miles invited Turner to visit NES schools to see them in action when school begins, but Turner refused and extended his own counter-invitation for Miles to come to City Hall to explain the NES.

Until one of them accepts the other’s invitation, the two leaders will likely remain at an impasse.

What does a librarian add to a library? Why should or shouldn’t HISD keep librarians at NES schools? Tell us what you think at sharpstownsharpener@gmail.com.