Some Houston ISD students feel drained after first days of class, but not necessarily in a bad way

For students in 85 Houston ISD schools, this first week of classes was different than previous years. That’s because a third of the district is undergoing reforms at the direction of state-appointed superintendent Mike Miles.

By Dominic Anthony Walsh, Houston Public MediaSeptember 7, 2023 9:45 am, ,

From Houston Public Media:

As students walked out of their first day of classes at Wheatley High School, first-year Nallely Cedillo had one complaint.

“So far I like it, but the only thing that I feel is kind of harsh is that we have to work the first day we go into school,” Cedillo said. “No getting to know the students, getting to know what to really do, it’s just straight into work.”

Superintendent Mike Miles was installed by the Texas Education Agency in June because Wheatley failed to meet state standards for several years. He said every moment of instruction counts.

“Third graders through 12th graders — they already know the rules,” Miles said. “And so we don’t need to spend 20 minutes in each class going over the rules.”

Aside from starting instruction on day one, the reformed schools also saw a shakeup to their staffing model and class schedule. Students will now take “Art of Thinking” classes focused on critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as “Dyad” classes — supplemental, elective-like activities led by non-certified, hourly contractors.

“The new classes are a good addition to the school,” said Wheatley junior Keidrick Davis. “Some of them I can go either way about, but yeah, I feel good about the new classes.”

To the north of Wheatley, Kashmere High has also struggled to meet state standards. It’s now part of the same reform program.

Students there, like sophomore Emmitt York, also felt drained by the first few days of instruction.

“I had the worst class today,” York said. “I had reading, first class. Oh my god.”

He walked into the classroom, sat down and “gotta read, immediately, gotta read.”

First-year Rachelle Edwards chimed in.

“She started getting into lessons and stuff,” Edwards recalled. “I was so confused, and I’m like, wait, we didn’t get to introduce ourselves.”

Sophomore Marlisia Pinkney agreed. The first day moved quickly. She was also annoyed to have to take quizzes from the start.

“They’re already doing testing,” Pinkney said. “It’s too early to do testing.”

In the reformed schools, these quizzes happen after every lesson. The students who do well on the quiz move on to advanced activities while the others stay behind for extra instruction.

Although Pinkney wished the first day had been more chill, she liked getting extra instruction when she’s behind — especially in math.

“Yeah, so I could get it better,” she said.

She also preferred the more structured, disciplined approach this year. The administration has repeatedly said that disrespect towards adults, bullying and disruptions won’t be tolerated — and that any students who violate those rules will be removed from class and placed in a “team center,” where they can rejoin their classmates virtually.

“It was cool because everybody’s focusing this year … because school’s so strict,” Pinkney said.

Anthony Conner just started his junior year at Kashmere. He enjoyed the more strict atmosphere.

“I feel definitely like more of a student this year than last year,” Conner said. “Because last year, I was just doing whatever I wanted to do.”

A lot of the students and parents at Wheatley and Kashmere have wanted to see something change for a while. So far, many of them are happy with what they see.

But not everyone feels that way.

Chris Paul / Houston Public Media

Pugh Elementary is one of the schools that feeds into Wheatley High School, and it’s also facing reforms.

Second grader Maycol Henríquez was shy and soft spoken after three days of class.

How was his first day?

“Good!” he said, in Spanish.

Did he understand the lessons, or was he confused?

“I understand it well,” he said.

But for his mom, Celina Manzano, this year feels quite different, and she had a lot to say.

She misses the school’s previous principal, who spoke Spanish and was easy to get in touch with. The new principal doesn’t speak Spanish, and some parents feel like there’s been a lack of communication about a range of issues, like problems with air conditioning, dismissal times, and the many changes coming to Pugh this year.

“If it wasn’t for our kids, we wouldn’t know what’s going on inside the school,” Manzano said in Spanish, adding that she feels ignored by the school’s new leadership. “So what do we want? We want to be heard — in our language.”

Parents from Pugh have been protesting the changes since June, when they found out the teachers there had to reapply for their jobs or be reassigned to another campus in the district. They questioned why their school is facing changes at all. It’s done well on state standards in recent years, even earning an A-rating from the Texas Education Agency.

In the eyes of Superintendent Mike Miles, if a high school like Wheatley has struggled, the elementary and middle schools in the area need to change, too.

“Yes, there were some A and B schools in those feeder patterns,” he said. “But in any case, the (reform) program is going to improve the instruction and the outcomes even for those A and B-rated schools.”

In order for Houston ISD to regain local control, no schools can repeatedly fail to meet state standards. But Miles has a larger goal: he hopes the reforms will narrow the achievement gap between working class and affluent communities.

It’ll take some time to see the full impact of the changes. The first week of class is almost over. There are 35 more to go.

Atirikta Kumar contributed reporting.

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