By Aswad Walker of the Houston Defender
Vocal members of the Black and Latinx communities made it perfectly clear that they see HISD Superintendent Mike Miles’ plan to eliminate librarians on 28 campuses and convert their libraries into detention centers as a direct move to further fuel the school-to-prison pipeline.
Surrounded by elected officials, HISD parents and community activists, NAACP Houston President Dr. James Dixon issued a call to action for all Houstonians appalled by Miles’ plan to converge on HISD’s Hattie Mae White Building (4400 W. 18th St., Houston, 77092) on Aug. 5 at 9a.m. to demand a policy reversal.
“Nelson Mandela stated that the clearest depiction of a nation’s character is seen in how it treats its children,” said Dixon. “That needs to sink in deeply because what we are witnessing presently in HISD are actions towards our children that are beyond egregious.
“It is with great concern for our children that we, the Houston NAACP, along with our friends express our sharp disagreement with the decisions made by state-appointed HISD Superintendent Mike Miles. The thought of closing and repurposing libraries in schools is not only insulting, but it’s also repulsive. It reveals a measure of disrespect and disregard for our children’s need to have access to the best and most functional libraries and schools available. And that includes professional staff.”
Dixon was joined by several people outraged by the idea of closing libraries in predominantly Black and Latinx schools, calling out what they see as an obvious racial component to Miles’ plan.
U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee; District D Houston City Councilmember Dr. Carolyn Evans-Shabazz; state representatives Alma Allen, Jolanda Jones, Christina Morales and Ron Reynolds; activist SisterMama Sonya; Houston Federation of Teacher President Jackie Anderson and many others spoke and/or showed support for those gathered at the NAACP Houston Branch headquarters for a press conference announcing their most recent grievance with Miles, HISD and in extension, Mike Morath of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and the state’s governor Greg Abbott, who oversaw the takeover of the largest school district in Texas.
Dixon said according to the US National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, school libraries are critical for student achievement, and that research conducted nationwide in more than 60 studies shows, “students in schools with good libraries learn more, get better grades, and score higher on standardized testing than their peers in schools without libraries,” underscoring the importance of school libraries and librarians.
“Today, we’re here because despite the research… the state-appointed HISD superintendent is leading this district to… fire librarians and to repurpose that space to deal with children with discipline challenges. The detriment such a decision will have on the intellectual, psychological and emotional development of our children is astronomical and generational,” said Dixon, who was not alone in his disgust for Miles’ recent announcement.
“I think it’s abhorrent also to have the negative connotation of disciplining children in a library,” said Evans-Shabazz. “Are you trying to get them not to participate in what’s going on in the library? Certainly, [you are] if you create a system where they are somewhat incarcerated, so to speak… And in the words of [Mayor Sylvester Turner], you [Miles] have crossed the line. And we are here to push you back like [Abbott’s agents pushed back] the children at the Rio Grande.”
Evans-Shabazz and Allen recalled librarians who made a difference in their lives. Evans Shabazz, a former reading teacher at Flemming Middle School, mentioned librarian Margaret Hutchins. Allen recalled that MacGregor Elementary’s now-retired librarian Cheryl Hensley invited Allen to read to MacGregor students annually, and worked magic for those students.
Houston Federation of Teachers President Jackie Anderson said Miles opens every public meeting by listing the reading deficiency numbers of NES campuses.
“According to the presented numbers, a significant number of fourth and eighth graders in HISD are not reading at their grade level,” said Anderson. “To remove librarians and libraries is an oxymoron. Mr. Miles, school libraries are vital for promoting literacy, fostering the love for learning and supporting students’ academic and personal development. To turn them into school prisons destroys any hope that students in the NES campuses will ever read on grade level or develop a love for learning.”
Jackson-Lee reminded attendees they still have a voice in HISD policies.
“A state takeover does not silence the voice of the stakeholders,” said Jackson-Lee. “It does not close the door to listening. Because remember, the tax dollars are not rescinded. The tax dollars are not waived. We are still paying tax dollars.”
Jones shared multiple personal testimonies, one of literally growing up in the basement of the TSU library as her mother, who worked there and couldn’t afford childcare, brought the child Jones with her. The other involved her work while a member of the HISD Board of Trustees and being told information she couldn’t believe—that there were multiple schools in her district without functioning libraries.
“I knew nothing about no libraries at my schools, because it never occurred to me that a school wouldn’t have a library,” said Jones. “I ended up finding out Yates didn’t have a [functioning] library [a room with no books]. Sterling—they literally built a new school at Sterling without a library. I had to fight for them to create an open-concept [library] because the school was already built. Attucks ain’t had no library, and no extra-curricular activities either. And Cullen Middle School ain’t had no library. So, I started rallying folks: ‘River Oaks got a library.’ People don’t want to say this, but the white schools have libraries. If they took libraries from white schools their parents would go nuts. So, I fought to get libraries at Yates, Sterling, Cullen and Attucks. So, I take this really personally.”
“If you don’t read at grade level by third grade then that’s how they build the prisons. And let me be clear, as a criminal defense lawyer, I represent these kids who are under-educated. And most of my clients can’t even read their plea papers. I have to explain their plea papers to them because they cannot read,” added Jones.
Dixon, who said a library book on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. he got in the fifth grade changed his life, and led him as a child to commit to a life of service, called business, faith and organization leaders to lend their voice against Miles’ library/detention center plan on Aug. 5.
“If you care about a child’s future at all, you should add your voices to ours,” he said.