HISD Board Decides to Go For District of Innovation Status But Thursday Night's Audience Remains Wary

Superintendent Mike Miles in the after-board meeting press conference.
Photo by Margaret Downing
Superintendent Mike Miles in the after-board meeting press conference.

According to Superintendent Mike Miles and some of the Houston ISD Board of Managers, it's been all blue skies for students and teachers after more than a week of school.

Somehow, though, none of those very happy teachers, students and parents made it to Thursday night's board agenda meeting.

One after another of the public speakers came to the mic to complain about an assortment of what they see as ills: the new teaching approach dominated by what were described as countless paper worksheets, timed lessons and testing, micro managing of frustrated teachers and classrooms with open doors during the day.

Peggy Christman, parent of a second and fourth grader at Mark Twain Elementary asked that Miles reconsider his mandate that classroom doors remain open during the day — although after a discussion with Houston Fire Chief Samuel Pena, Miles has already amended that dictum for fire safety reasons in older school buildings without sprinkler systems.

Christman's focus was on the noise generated. "When my kids came home from school last week they complained that they were distracted by the noise from classes across the hall.," she said. "Our students and teachers have gone through so much in these past few years. They’ve learned through screens; they’ve learned though masks. Let us not ask them to learn over the noise of the classroom across the hall,"

Trust or the absence thereof was the elephant in the room as speakers argued against HISD becoming a District of Innovation that would allow the district all kinds of waivers as to class size and the length of the school year. They warned against giving Miles that expansion of power.

"You're actually not innovating, you're actually just getting out of following the Texas Education Code," said frequent critic and parent Ann Eagleton. Addressing both Miles and the Board of Managers, Eagleton said: "Since you've arrived, I have seen all the checks and balances disappear from this district."

But the Board of Managers didn't hesitate to approve applying for that distinction, as they continue to support Miles' oft made statements that something drastic needs to be done to turn around a district with overall low test scores and a booming achievement gap between white and minority students. According to the TEA there are 965 Districts of Innovation in the state and in the Houston are this includes Fort Bend, Katy and Spring ISDs.  And they pointed out that most public schools in Texas have sought and received this designation that allows them to start school before the fourth Monday in August.

"Kids need more days of instruction, especially struggling campuses," Miles said.

The next steps are to hold a public meeting for input — tentatively scheduled for 4 p.m. Thursday September 14, When asked in his after-meeting press conference by Houston Public Media reporter Dominic Anthony Walsh if that wouldn't make it difficult for a lot of people to attend this public meeting, Miles said they'd find a way if they were really interested.

Starting the school year earlier and more days in class— right now the district is at 172 and Miles would like to see it move to 180 to 185 days—  is something that's hard to argue with while looking at the district's state mandated  STAAR test scores. Of course, more days in school for students means teachers will have a longer school year as well — that didn't gain any rounds of applause Thursday night.

What did gain general audience approval was the latest in protest techniques demonstrated at the meeting. Cell phones started going off with loud rings and music, apparently accidentally. Nope. It was a synchronized effort to highlight what could be said in four minutes, In Miles' New Education System and NES Affiliated schools, it is recommended that teachers engage their students every four minutes.

The distracting noise resonated throughout the room and Board President Audrey Momanaee was at a loss to determine who exactly was setting off the alarms and shut it down. Still, by the end of the meeting, two people were invited to leave because of their callouts to the board.

Initial hopes that the district would slow the decrease in students that it's experienced in the past several years, didn't survive the latest data. First week of school HISD reports that the district had 186,000 to 189,000 students enroll had dwindled to 179,000 by Thursday night.

Special education resources continued to be a concern voiced to the board, particularly after 21 contract workers were let go. Miles insisted that the district is paying more attention to special ed than ever before. He didn't win any friends when he said that not all special ed teachers were good at their jobs and a more rigorous look was needed at their teaching methods.

"One of the things that's been a problem with our profession is that the special education teachers have been not ignored, but principals just walk by. The quality of instruction of special education teachers in the country  ... the special education quality of instruction is low. It is often not as effective. The expectations are lower than the kids can rise to."

Thanks to a successful so-far suit filed by the Houston Federation of Teachers, Miles had to scrap his plans to install his own teacher and principal evaluation system this year and will instead be using the Texas Education Agency approved T-TESS. (Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System.)

Although a  Harris County judge granted a temporary restraining order only until a hearing on September 11, Miles said Thursday night that he didn't want to go back and forth on this and would use the T-TESS for the remainder of this school year.