Another school year is set to begin Aug. 28 for students at Houston ISD, but this year will look different from any in the past.

The Texas Education Agency, the branch of state government that oversees public school districts, ousted former HISD Superintendent Millard House II and its elected board of trustees in June, replacing them with a new board of managers and superintendent.

The new HISD superintendent is Mike Miles, who formerly served as superintendent of Dallas ISD from 2012-15 and also founded a public charter school network that spans several states. He’s been tasked with helping HISD improve its accountability ratings and board governance across the district.

He said his top concern is preparing students for a future where he predicts a “locked in” skills gap between those who develop reading, math and technology skills and those who do not.

“Time has run out,” Miles told the audience at a July 20 community event. “This is the last generation of children that will go through public education before the skills gap is locked in for the next 30 years. That’s my prediction.”

So far, Miles’ announced plans include revamping HISD’s special education services and rolling out his New Education System—a classroom style centered on shifting teacher responsibilities at certain schools so they can focus solely on teaching. Later on, he also plans to implement pay-for-performance measures where teacher salaries are informed in part by student test results.

Although Miles’ focus on technology and artificial intelligence has garnered positive feedback from some attendees at public meetings this summer, his appointment has not come without controversy. A coalition of teachers, parents and public education advocates has called attention to what they see as shortcomings with his plans, including that instruction would be more scripted.

“It sounds like every teacher just needs to read [the scripted curriculum] and they’ll be set, but it doesn’t work that way in the classroom,” said Alison Chapin, who formerly taught second grade at Scarborough Elementary School before making the difficult decision to leave the district this summer amid the changes being announced. “The more authentic it is, the better it sticks for kids. Is that going to happen with a scripted curriculum?”

A new system

The NES was among the first initiatives announced by Miles during a June 2 news conference, one day after his first day on the job. Schools that fall within the system will pay teachers more, take responsibilities off their plates and use premade lesson plans.

The concept was initially going to be rolled out at 28 schools in August. Most of those schools were part of feeder patterns leading up to three high schools that received unacceptable state accountability ratings during one or more years since 2017: Wheatley, Kashmere and North Forest high schools. Wheatley, which received unacceptable performance ratings seven times between the 2010-11 and 2018-19 school year, was specifically named as one of the reasons for the state intervention by TEA officials. However, Wheatley was given a passing rating by the TEA for the 2021-22 school year.

Teachers at the schools were told they would have to reapply for their jobs, but also that the average teacher salary for those specific schools was being bumped up to $85,000.

Several elements of Miles’ plan for the NES schools raised concerns among community members. At an Aug. 10 board meeting, board managers are expected to debate agenda items that could give Miles more power, including the power to spend up to $2 million at a time without needing board approval and the power to seek waivers from the TEA to hire non-certified teachers.

Meanwhile, public speakers at community events have spoken out against the removal of librarians from NES campuses and the repurposing of libraries into Teams Centers, rooms where students will take part in group projects, but also where students who disrupt class would be sent to watch lessons virtually with a learning coach.

Lisa Robinson, a retired Houston ISD educator who finished her career as a teacher in charge of libraries at Shearn Elementary School, said librarians serve a vital role in fostering an interest in reading among students. Under a recent push, HISD had libraries operating at 90% of its schools in the 2021-22 school year, up from 48% the year before, she said.

“It’s not like we’ve had libraries for 40 years in these schools and it didn’t work,” she said. “Just give it a chance. So many kids become true lovers of reading because of coming into a library.”

Miles said the decision to remove librarians and media specialists from NES schools came down to prioritizing limited resources. It is more important to direct resources to the teachers that are teaching students how to read at those schools, Miles said.

Miles also said he plans to keep dual language programs at schools that have them, but said teaching children to read and write in English at grade level will be the priority. This has raised concerns among Spanish-speaking HISD parents, who said they worried what would happen if Spanish instruction takes a back seat.

“With taking away the dual-language program, you’re going to take away that communicative language children have with their parents because most households only speak Spanish,” said Crystal Aguilar, a parent of students at Pugh Elementary School in an interview done in Spanish and translated to English.

Aguilar, Nallely Garza and Celina Manzano—two other Pugh parents—said they are planning an event in late August with other parents to speak out about their concerns about dual-language programs. Moving forward, they said they planned to stay closely involved with the district as they continue to try to make the best decisions for their children.

Veronica Cohetero is the mother of a special needs student who attends St. George Place Elementary School in the Galleria area. She said that she will do all that she can to make sure her son stays in the school he loves even though she said timely communication is lacking from HISD leadership.

“The least I expect is the school to be fighting against me when all I’m trying to do is get my son where he needs to be,” she said. “I’m excited to see what [Mike Miles] is going to bring and hopefully he follows through. But if not, we’re going to hold him accountable.”

Miles said he aims to extend the NES to 150 of the district’s 274 schools by 2030. After announcing the opportunity in June for other HISD schools to voluntarily opt into the system ahead of schedule, principals at 57 more schools opted to operate under the NES in the 2023-24 school year.

Miles has pointed to the voluntary opt-ins as proof that his ideas have support. At an Aug. 1 community event, Miles also said there were close to zero teacher vacancies at NES schools, and HISD overall was expected to start the 2023-24 school year with fewer vacancies that last year.

Moving forward

Leading up to the 2023-24 school year, Miles reduced the size of the district’s central office by 2,347 positions, a process that involved cutting or reassigning 672 people and removing 1,675 vacant positions.

When the board of trustees adopted the district’s budget for the 2023-24 school year in June, Miles largely kept plans in place that were set by the previous administration. However, he shifted $30 million in central office funding to go toward his plans for the NES rollout.

The need to cut central office spending has been on the radar of HISD leadership dating back to House’s administration. House, who was superintendent from July 2021 through Miles’ appointment June 1, froze central office hiring in March 2022 and called for cutting central office spending by $60 million in the 2022-23 budget. The reason, House said at the time, was that the district was approaching a “fiscal cliff” caused by declining enrollment.

The cost of the NES expansion for the initial 28 schools for the 2023-24 school year is $106 million. Meanwhile, the district is facing a projected budgetary shortfall of $168.5 million that year.

Meanwhile, the timing of when HISD returns to elected leadership depends on how quickly the district can meet three requirements set by the TEA. HISD must be in full compliance with special education laws; it must have no schools that fail to meet state standards for two years; and it must demonstrate board procedures that “focus on student outcomes,” according to TEA information.

However, even after HISD meets those requirements, only three elected trustees will be allowed to return each year from that point. Appointed board members will serve their positions until the elected leadership is allowed to return.

There is no specific timeline or requirement set for when Miles will step down, a decision left entirely to TEA Commissioner Mike Morath.

As HISD officials try to improve accountability ratings, several significant changes are on the horizon. The TEA is implementing changes to how ratings will be calculated starting with the 2022-23 school year.

Miles said the changes could result in lower ratings at some schools. However, he said he thought the new ratings would be a more accurate reflection of how well the district is doing.

Melissa Enaje contributed to this report.