The HISD board of education is expected to vote on a measure Aug. 13 allowing the district to appoint a District of Innovation committee, the next step toward formally seeking exemptions from certain state policies.
“It’s all about giving districts more flexibility to adapt to meet the needs of students and families,” said Rick Cruz, the district’s chief strategy and innovation officer.
The board of education initially approved a resolution May 14 allowing the district to begin the District of Innovation process.
HISD is calling for three exemptions: adjusting the school year start date; allowing teachers without certifications for career and technical education courses; and allowing a revised attendance policy from a rule that requires students to attend 90% of class days to earn credit.
If adopted, HISD would be one of almost 900 school districts that have adopted DOI status to take exception to various state laws.
HISD officials have been discussing the process for years, Cruz said, but several stakeholders and trustees questioned the timing of the push amid the COVID-19 crisis, particularly when the DOI plan would not take effect until next school year.
“Parents and the teachers union community were questioning why pursue this at a time when students are dispersed and the parents’ focus is on the immediate needs,” said Jasmine Jenkins, the executive director of Houston GPS, a district accountability group.
The DOI process was created with the intent of allowing districts to tinker with practices to help students succeed, but the way the law was written, districts do not have to actually prove to the state the measures are working, said Holly Eaton, who leads advocacy efforts for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association.
“The question should be, OK you’re exempting yourself here, but what kind of program do you put in place and how does it help student outcomes?” Eaton said. “Unfortunately it has become kind of laughingly known as a ‘district of exemption’ moniker rather than a District of Innovation.”
Trustees Anne Sung and Elizabeth Santos and other stakeholders also voiced concerns about the potential for reduced teaching standards across the board, a fear Cruz said will not be realized.
“That is not our intent, which is why the resolution is very, very limited to CTE,” Cruz said.
Not having enough teachers for technical skill-based courses is limiting the district from being able to offer new and in-demand career tracks, such as information technology and process technology, Cruz said, as well as tapping into state funding opportunities targeted to these courses. CTE achievement is a component of state accountability rankings as well.
The certification exemption is the second-most requested DOI policy, with over 800 schools adopting some form of it, which Eaton said should raise flags because the TEA already has a waiver process for accepting non-certified teachers.
“You will want to look for a lot of specificity around that. Will at least a bachelor’s degree be required? Which classes specifically will they be allowed to teach? If it’s a vague policy such as, ‘We just need to be able to fill in spots where we have shortages’ ... that’s scary,” Eaton said.
The next step in the process is for HISD to form a committee, which it hopes to have in place by the fall, to craft the details of the DOI proposal.
“We as an administration are not drafting the plan. The committee works autonomously,” Cruz said.
According to the Texas Education Agency, once the committee drafts the plan, it must be posted publicly for 30 days. It then must be approved by the District Advisory Committee by a majority vote. At that point, the plan must receive a two-thirds vote of the board of trustees.