"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

November's Rotten Apple in Education Goes to James McSwain, Principal of Lamar High School

With apologies to the work of Jerry Bracey, whose Rotten Apple Awards in Education should still be required reading for education policy students and "thought leaders" like Andy R, I am offering this monthly award, which will be announced on the same day as the Monthly Education Hero.  There are so many nominees in this Rotten category each month, the competition will be keen for sure.

But hands down, this month goes to Larmar High School principal, James McSwain, who has dumped, burned, who knows, most all the books and "repurposed" the school library into a coffee shop run by students.  I guess you might say McSwain is really serious about preparing his high schoolers to compete for those 21st Century American jobs.

The Library's website also makes a pitch for the right-wing online database, Questia, where students are supposed to find safe reading, i. e., heavily censored.  As an old high school librarian myself, I did my litmus test and it came up positive for ultra-conservative selection in fiction.  No Catcher in the Rye by Salinger (not even Franny and Zooey), and nothing, nada, by Robert Cormier.  This is supposed to be a high school collection that is professionally chosen.  No adolescent library worth its salt would be without these authors, whose book jackets that have been memorialized in tee-shirts and book bags. 

The school library is the heart, hub, and soul of a school, serving as a place to do the messy work of learning to do research, to read, to think, to view, to listen, to produce media, to teach information literacy, technological literacy, media literacy.  A place to make up a missed test, do an independent study, ask a librarian for a book recommendation.  The school library serves to host important school functions like PTO meetings and National Honor Society receptions and faculty meetings, an intellectual center for curriculum work and planning, where teachers can take a break and read English Journal, a place where kids can wander and check out a paperback.  A resource for coming of age questions, a place to collaborate and find out about careers and college, to plan science projects, to hang art work, to have a quiet place amongst the hubbub of school.  And a place for parents to contribute and know they are doing important work for the school in checking out books and shelving them, and offering a smile to students who don't get enough of them.  The existence of a library has been shown to have a significant impact on student test scores, for christsakes.

You have gone too far, Mr. McSwain.  You are the Rotten Apple of the Month.  And that is putting it kindly.

From Hair Balls:
Just adding a coffee shop to a neighborhood library so people can feel like they're in Starbucks and ultra hip was apparently too passe a trend for Principal James McSwain of Lamar High School.

Finishing up a week ago, McSwain has thrown out nearly all the books and filled the space they were unnecessarily taking up with couches and coffee and food and told his students that they can access the exciting world of reading through e-books! And if they don't have a laptop of their own and Internet access to do so, they can use one of the laptop computers in the library coffeeshop!

He's even expanded the library coffeeshop hours to 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. which works great if you're one of those kids with your own transportation and not one who is too young, too poor or with rotten parents who won't let you drive to school yourself rather than riding the bus.

And he's bought 35 new laptops! For a Houston ISD flagship school with more than 3,000 students in it.
A veteran educator who visited the school a few weeks ago said most of the books were already gone by then. "There were a few down one side. They assured me they're getting rid of those as soon as they could. The plan is to turn the whole space into a coffee shop run by students."

Students will be able to access places online such as Questia, an online resource facility where you can get articles about anything that you want, she told Hair Balls. There's books online, too, but as she put it, the selections are limited. Her reaction:

"I was appalled. I was stunned by the whole thing I can't imagine what he was thinking. I'm assured this is old school thinking and we should just appreciate that they're not old school thinkers."
The change, she said, was "designed to impress the new superintendent [Terry Grier] with the forward thinking nature of that particular principal at that particular school. "

She said she was told one teacher who had kids after school working on their volunteer hours was asked to send them to the library to "get rid of the books." She said he asked what they meant and "They said they didn't care; just get them out of here."

"He couldn't bring himself to throw away books. He said it didn't seem like a good thing for the kids to do. They got somebody [else]. My impression was that most of the books were thrown away. Some of them may have been donated."

Hair Balls tried to reach McSwain; he would only speak to us through HISD Sarah Greer Osborne. This is what she told us:
"The school library has been updated. It's got a lot of new electronic equipment. Most of it's e-books and new laptops and they're putting their money, instead of into paper, they're putting it into electronic resources. 
Yes, there are still books there but most of it is now e-books where the kids can check out the book and as long as they have Internet access they can read the book. The library is now open from 6:30 to 6:30, a.m. to p.m., and he says the kids are eating it up; they have never seen so many kids in the library before. They only did this a week ago and he says the number of e-books being checked out is through the roof.

He says the kids love it. They did put coffee and food in there so the kids when they're staying after school and before the kids can have a little coffee, read a book it's just like Starbucks. Except they're providing the books as well. The kids are eating it up that's what they want. They want the e-books."
The veteran teacher wasn't as excited. "It's just stupid. It just boggles the mind. I'm sure there's more to the story and I'm sure that they can make it sound better than I'm making it sound to you but in the end it's a terrible story. There's no way in my mind that you can gloss this story and make it seem like a good idea.

"There's no way to get hold of a book on the campus to read for pleasure or to use to write a paper. If you don't have access to a computer of your own then you have to compete for one of the computers that are in the coffee shop. And you have to find a way to get it done during the time the coffee shop is open."

The teacher said the whole thing breaks her heart; but she can walk away from it. At least she's not the Lamar High librarian, whose library has been "repurposed" (a favorite educator buzzword these days), presiding over a coffee shop with all those swell couches.


  1. I have doubts educating students is his priority.

  2. I have doubts educating students is his priority.

  3. Anonymous11:36 AM

    Reading this after 13 years made me say that Dr. McSwain did the right thing ten years ago.