School librarians are currently an endangered species in Houston, TX—and the future doesn’t look very bright. Decisions on librarian staffing levels are left to the principals, with no mandates at the district level for certified media specialists. The result? A dramatic decline in the number of these professionals serving in Houston, according to the Texas Education Agency (TEA).
Nearly 43 percent of school librarians have disappeared from the Houston Independent School District (ISD) since the 2009–2010 school year, when 168 certified media specialists held the position in schools, statistics from the TEA show. For the 2013–2014 school year, that number has dropped to just 97 certified media specialists serving all of the district’s 282 K–12 schools.
The Houston ISD is a “decentralized district,” Denisse Cantu, with the Houston ISD media relations department, explains. That means decisions on how schools are staffed by certain positions are left up to the principals, and certified librarians are just one of many of these types of jobs.
“Principals oversee their budgets, which are funded on a per-pupil basis,” says Cantu. “Schools are not required to employ certified librarians.”
But Debbie Hall—a librarian in the Houston ISD for more than 30 years, who retired as a library and technology administrator two years ago—believes they should. “This dwindle has been going on for a number of years,” Hall tells School Library Journal. “But for the last two years it has accelerated.”
Last employed with the Houston ISD in 2011, Hall remains on the district’s rosters as a library substitute, giving her access, she says, to the district’s staffing statistics. She said she feels so impassioned for her former colleagues that she continues to advocate, challenging principals at school meetings in her neighborhood.
In 2012, for example, Hall questioned Hogg Middle School principal Mina Schnitta on why the school lacked a certified librarian, she says, and found herself hired by Schnitta for six months in order to get Hogg’s library “up to snuff.” Hall also notes that Schnitta hired a certified librarian for the 2013–2014 school year. (Schnitta did not return repeated calls from SLJ.)
Maribel Castro, whose first job as a school librarian was at Hogg Middle School during the 1990s, has watched as her former school district has “gone south,” she tells SLJ.
Castro, who worked as a Houston ISD library coordinator, and served as president of the Texas Library Association in 2011, now works as the instruction and electronic resources librarian for Lubbock Christian University. She says she worries that with a decentralized district, principals will rarely allocate funds for school librarians over other literacy choices.
“Some [principals] are going to support their library and some are not,” Castro says. “A principal will invest $20,000 on Accelerated Readers because they’re looking for a magic bullet to raise reading scores, but they won’t invest in an individual who can improve children’s literacy through books. This is not really a matter of funding but a matter of priority.”
Hall agrees. She notes that Kim Heckman, the principal of Pershing Middle School in the district, recently has had to let go of her two school librarians because of a $300,000 short fall in her budget. However, Pershing, with its more than 1600 students, currently still has a guitar and theater production teacher on staff, according to records she accessed, Hall says.
“[Those positions] affect only a few hundred students,” Hall says, “rather than a librarian which affects them all.” (Repeated calls to Heckman from SLJ were not returned.)
Hall believes school librarian positions—and school libraries in general—will continue to falter in Houston if they don’t get more support at the district level. Without some centralized effort, she says, the numbers won’t likely resurge in favor of her former colleagues. “I don’t think the problem totally lies with it being a site-based decision,” she says. “I think it’s the district not having a vision for school libraries. They just use site-based decision making [as the excuse] to say it’s out of their hands.”