On Your Mark, Get Set, Hustle: HISD Shifts and Compresses The Time to Make School Choices

HISD Chief Academic Officer Kristen Hole and Superintendent Mike Miles explaining how school choice will work going forward.
HISD Chief Academic Officer Kristen Hole and Superintendent Mike Miles explaining how school choice will work going forward. Photo by Margaret Downing

School choice in Houston ISD will continue, but with tighter deadlines for families. All the plan's details have yet to be worked out — questions are already surfacing on various education forums —  but Superintendent Mike Miles and his administration have pledged to continue it.

This is good news for many families who upset by earlier rumors made it clear they didn't want to see school choice disappear.  A gauge of the public sentiment from 11,000 families over the past couple of months was that school choice should stay, no matter how long the bus rides.

The biggest change is that the process will start later (January instead of December) and end earlier than in past years, providing less time for either careful consideration or procrastination.

HISD Chief Academic Officer Kristen Hole was on hand with HISD Superintendent Mike Mikes at a hastily called press conference late Friday afternoon to answer questions about the changes. Horn said the information was gathered through focus groups, online surveys and community events.

Asked for the main findings the district gathered, Hole said:

"Families really, really value choice in HISD. They want to keep the choices that they have available. to them and we're honoring that. So all schools and all magnet programs will continue to be choices for families.

"Another is they actually value the lottery even though it may be at times stressful," she said adding that the main change is that HISD is providing parents with a timeline.

For his part, Miles lauded the district's history of school choice although in the past he has questioned students spending an hour or more on their buses to go across town to get to their school of choice.

"What we're going to try to do, instead of limiting that option, we're going to try to improve our transportation services so that the time is much more efficient.  What I don't like but may still have is students on a bus an hour and a half, two hours, one way,"

Certainly of interest for those hoping to get their kids into Gifted and Talented programs, the entry testing for students is being done earlier in the process, so parents won't waste any of their up to 10 selections they can make just in case they pick programs that their children can't test into anyway.

This fast track, announced last Friday, gives families who want to sign their children up for the Vanguard magnet programs only until Friday December 8 to sign up for testing using the GT testing request link. 

Next up is the Phase One application due by January 18, 2024. Previously this started in December. That application is due by February 23, 2024. The Phase One Lottery Notification in which students are matched to schools will go out March 26, 2024.

The Phase Two application opens that same day, March 26. Students who wish to accept their school match must do so by April 9, 2024. No date has been set yet for when the Phase Two application.

Almost immediately following the letter sent out to parents, questions arose beginning with the absence of any mention of wait lists or the date the Phase One wait list expires. A student who ultimately turns down a match at one school then opens up a spot for someone else to take his place.

Also, very important to families with several children, the plan as described doesn't address the question of whether siblings will be guaranteed to be able to attend the same school.

According to the administration, many parents prefer to enroll their children in Pre-K classes on the same campus they will attend elementary school and will be allowed to directly apply to that school. Families who don't like this option can still apply through the school choice process.

This then sets up two, potentially competing systems and some parents are wondering, which takes precedence, the school choice application or the zoned-to-this school application?  And weren't a certain number of pre-K slots supposed to be dedicated to children of low socioeconomic status, wherever they live?

In her remarks Hole said, "The biggest stressor for most families was they wanted improved and increased communication. They wanted more clarity around how the process works. They wanted  more ability to have touchpoints with central office staff to ask questions in the process."  As a result Hole talked about providing better training for staff members to deal with these questions.

The district will hold a series of informational events to help parents navigate this new process — although administrators still haven't worked out when and where. There was also a pledge to improve the district's school choice website and SchoolFinder tool. HISD students are on winter break from December 22 through January 5. 
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing