HOUSTON (AP) — The library at Houston’s Lockhart Elementary had been a refuge for 8-year-old Sydney, who has struggled because of dyslexia. The school’s librarian, Cheryl Hensley, curated a space that encouraged her to read.
But now Texas has taken over Houston’s public school district, and her refuge has been repurposed as a space to be used in part for discipline. While students can still check out books, there will be no one to guide them. Hensley, the librarian, is gone.
“I’m hurt … and now to know that Ms. Hensley is no longer on the campus, the library has been shuttered?” said Sydney’s mother, Lauren Simmons. “I’m at a point where, do I take my baby to school Monday because what’s going to happen to her?”
Simmons as well as other parents, teachers, students and local officials have expressed anxiety and fear over what to expect as the new school year begins Monday.
The new state-installed superintendent, Mike Miles, said his message to teachers and parents is about hope as well as the need for dramatic change.
Miles, a former Army Ranger and diplomat whose mixed record as superintendent of the Dallas school district was marked by upheaval, said recent disappointing standardized test scores only confirmed the need for reform in Houston.
“I’ve talked about bold, systemic change. I think most people understand that we’re not in a good place,” Miles said.
Sandra Velazquez, a bilingual elementary school teacher, is not convinced.
“This is my second year. I came in with high expectations … and now I feel so demoralized,” she said.
One of Miles’ boldest projects has been a major restructuring of 28 underperforming schools, many of which are located in lower-income neighborhoods. Their teachers must now follow a centrally scripted curriculum, with in-classroom cameras monitoring their performance and pay based largely on standardized test scores.
Miles, who developed these ideas as CEO of a charter school network, has said he wants to eventually expand his “New Education System” to 150 of the district’s 274 schools, whose nearly 200,000 students are more than 80% Latino and Black.
Miles also has disbanded a team that supported students with autism, although his staff says special education services will continue as part of a restructuring, and filled some vacancies with uncertified teachers.
His most criticized change is transforming libraries at dozens of underperforming schools into “team centers” where students will get extra help and where those who misbehave will be disciplined, watching lessons on Zoom rather than disrupting their classrooms.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says the libraries plan is creating a prison-like atmosphere in spaces usually associated with learning.
Miles attributed the criticism about the team centers to politics and misinformation.
The Texas Education Agency cited chronically low academic scores at one high school and allegations of misconduct by the district’s elected trustees when it announced the takeover.
Democratic leaders said state officials ignored recent improvements reducing the number of low-rated schools from 50 to 10, and blamed the underperformance on underfunding by the GOP-led Texas Legislature.
The takeover in Texas’ largest city comes as state GOP leaders around the country seek to assert power over Democratic strongholds. Just last week, the head of Oklahoma’s public schools threatened a takeover of the Tulsa school district.
Such takeovers generally are not a silver bullet for improvement, said Beth Schueler, who teaches education and public policy at the University of Virginia. Her research published in 2021 analyzed before-and-after test results for all 35 state takeovers from 2011-2016 and found, on average, there is no evidence takeovers generate academic benefits.
“It can actually be disruptive to academic achievement,” Schueler said.
Velazquez said she and many of her colleagues are afraid to speak up and would rather “keep their head down, keep their jobs.”
One veteran secondary teacher who asked that her name not be used for fear of losing their job, told The Associated Press that many of her colleagues are concerned Miles’ system of tightly timed and controlled class instruction will turn teaching into assembly-line work.
“That’s all we talk about and it’s very distracting because we really need to be focusing on the needs of our students,” the teacher said.
Comfort Azagidi, a 17-year-old high school senior, said she was misled into performing in a musical show at a recent assembly in which Miles wrote and acted. Some parents and teachers said the show criticized reporters who have asked questions about his proposals and made light of concerns about the libraries.
Azagidi said she doesn’t support the takeover.
“It’s really going to be detrimental to the future of our education,” Azagidi said.
Miles has brushed off the criticism, saying most parents, teachers and students support his plans.
Bob Harvey, CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, a leading Houston-area business group that supports the takeover, said residents “should recall what brought us to this point: the failure of previous HISD administrations and elected board members to afford the opportunity for a quality education to each and every student.”
David DeMatthews, associate professor at the University of Texas’ College of Education, said Houstonians should be upset the district previously has fallen short, but Miles’ record doesn’t inspire confidence.
“I want Mike Miles to succeed because of what’s at stake … But there’s nothing good to say at this point,” DeMatthews said. “So everybody is going to lose here.”
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Juan A. Lozano, The Associated Press