Houston ISD parents, students fear Mike Miles’ reforms will tear the community fabric of their schools

It’s been just over two months since the Texas Education Agency replaced the elected board and superintendent of Houston’s public school system with hand-picked managers. As major reforms sweep the district, many parents and educators are worried about losing intergenerational connections in their public schools.

By Dominic Anthony Walsh, Houston Public MediaAugust 10, 2023 10:15 am, ,

From Houston Public Media:

Mike Miles is an unusual superintendent. He wasn’t hired by the local school board.

Instead, the Texas Education Agency, which oversees public education in the state, appointed him to lead Houston schools in June. The agency also replaced the entire elected board with hand-picked managers.

This is allowed under state law because one school — out of more than 270 in the system — failed to meet academic standards for several years in a row.

“We’re going to do wholescale systemic reform,” Miles said on his first day on the job in June, when he took interviews at that school — Wheatley High, in Houston’s Fifth Ward. “We’re going to really provide them a level of support that they hadn’t received before and turn around the schools, and really raise the quality of instruction.”

The sweeping changes include longer instructional days, lessons scripted by planners, not teachers, and new evaluations for educators that tie pay to academic performance.

Most of those schools will lose their traditional libraries and librarians.

“We have X number of librarians in the district today — I don’t know what that exact number is — we’ll have the same number of librarians after this summer or after this year,” he said at the time.

But not in the reformed schools — librarians there would need to transfer elsewhere in the district or find a new role.

Miles said it’s about priorities.

“We’re staffing them in a way to get the outcomes we want,” he explained. “So the outcomes we want are reading, writing, math achievement proficiency. We want to narrow the gaps, and then we want to prepare kids for the year 2035.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner blasted the plan.

“Yes, some students are struggling and need additional support and attention,” Turner said. “But the answer isn’t throwing out libraries so that no student in that school can have access to a campus library. Especially not in neighborhoods where libraries are needed the most.”

According to the superintendent, students will still be able to access books. Libraries themselves will become what Miles calls “hubs of differentiated learning” — that means that students who are doing well in class will go there for advanced learning. Students who disrupt class will also be sent to these “team centers,” where they can rejoin their classmates virtually.

Miles hopes the plan will reduce the number of suspensions.

Folks aren’t just upset about the libraries. Parents and students are also angry that at 28 of the reformed schools, every educator had to reapply for their jobs.

First-time protestors

At a community center in a predominantly Latino part of Northeast Houston, students and parents from Pugh Elementary, like Jessica Campos, met up to protest the changes.

“We don’t have a say, no one’s asked us, no one’s set foot in our schools,” Campos told the crowd of parents.

Nancy Coronado, another parent, blasted the removal of the school’s bilingual principal and the loss of the teachers they’ve known for years.

“We don’t want other teachers,” she said in Spanish. “We want the same teachers because they’ve been our second family.”

Her sixth grade son, Ricardo Delgado, hoped his favorite reading teacher wouldn’t lose her position.

Nancy Coronado stands with protesters to oppose TEA’s takeover of HISD.
Dominic A. Walsh / Houston Public Media

“I’m feeling sad because I want more students to go to that class because they will feel nice,” he said. “Because she makes everything fun.”

That feeling resonates across many of the schools facing reforms.

Anger boils over at community meetings

In a predominantly Black part of southeast Houston, Lauren Ashley Simmons stared down superintendent Mike Miles at a community engagement meeting.

“I’ve been waiting patiently for this, and I want you to look at my face and remember me because I’m your new best friend,” Simmons told Miles before ripping into his reform agenda.

Simmons has two kids — one at Jack Yates High, and another at Lockhart Elementary. Both are facing reforms. They’re among the 57 schools that opted into the program this summer rather than being forced to join in the coming years, bringing the total number of reformed schools to 85.

For Simmons, this is personal. She credits a reading teacher named Ms. Cheryl Hensely with sparking her passion for reading decades ago. That same teacher is now her daughter’s librarian at Lockhart Elementary.

Lauren Ashley Simmons is a parent of students at Yates High and Lockhart Elementary. She opposes Mike Miles’ changes.
Dominic Anthony Walsh / Houston Public Media

Ms. Hensley also spoke at the community meeting, and she stuck around to chat with Rolando Martinez, one of the state-appointed managers on the school board. She urged him to push back on the library plan.

Martinez told her the new state-appointed leadership is focused on balancing priorities in the reformed schools.

“But you’re talking about the haves and have nots,” she responded.

She tried to hold back tears, unsuccessfully, as she reflected on the work she’s done for the past three decades, and the fact that she probably won’t be able to do it anymore. Her position no longer exists at Lockhart.

“That’s what hurts me bad,” she said. “These kids were just getting into the library, just realizing what they could do, and it’s taken out from under them.”

Simmons, her former student, walked over to comfort her.

“She is the reason I have a bookshelf full of books,” Simmons said, with her hand on Ms. Hensley’s shoulder. “I used to be in my bed at night reading — I used to get in trouble … My mom would be like ‘Cheryl, that girl has been up all night reading.'”

The protests continued over the weekend, this time at HISD headquarters.

Protestors come together

Outside the Houston ISD administration building, elected officials, the local NAACP, and parents and students who had never protested before this summer turned out.

“Mike Miles, here’s our rule, libraries in every school,” they chanted.

They came together from across town. Ms. Hensely, Lauren Simmons, Jessica Campos — and even Campos’ 10-year-old daughter, who’s entering 5th grade, Sophie Grace Rojas.

Cheryl Hensely speaks outside of the HISD headquarters. HISD parent Lauren Simmons stands nearby in support.
Dominic Anthony Walsh / Houston Public Media

And again, it’s not just about the libraries. Sophie is most concerned about losing her favorite teacher.

“She teaches math. I love math. She treats us like her own children,” Rojas said. “It feels like the school’s kind of brought down a little because she’s like the spirit in there. She’s the happiest person in there.”

Parents and students here feel like the community fabric of their schools is being torn apart.

“Our schools are ecosystems,” Simmons said. “They are central hubs. They are where we go to get information. It’s where we go to learn. There are generational connections. There are people teaching my children that taught me.”

Miles said he gets it, but change is necessary, and turnover happens every year.

“Did that break the fabric of the community?” Miles asked. “So if it’s an anecdote, if it’s one or two, I totally understand that sentiment. But I wonder if it applies more broadly.”

Miles plans to expand the reforms to 150 schools — that’s more than half the district. He also wants to institute a “pay-for-performance” and “earned autonomy” model across the entire district, with teacher pay and school autonomy largely dependent on student test scores. Opponents will have a tough time pushing back. His bosses, the state-appointed school board of managers, don’t have to face elections.

Some members of the Board of Managers have questioned Miles’ most recent request for expanded power. If granted, he could make sweeping changes to magnet programs, hire uncertified teachers and spend up to $2 million at a time without board approval.

The board will vote on the policy changes this Thursday, when community members plan to hold a “read in” protest at the meeting. Protestors will show up before the meetings with books — and they’ll read.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on texasstandard.org and houstonpublicmedia.org. Thanks for donating today.