Challenges and Concerns in HISD: Parental Backlash Amidst Educational Reforms

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December 11, 2023

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(HOUSTON, T.X.) — Lavonica St. Julian was worried when the state took over the Houston Independent School District last summer to improve underperforming schools.  Now she’s furious because two of her children spend the school day in the library which has been converted in a “Team Center” for children with behavioral problems, joining their class virtually to avoid interrupting regular instruction.

At the center of the chaos is HISD, Texas’ educational flagship and the nation’s eighth-largest school district. Superintendent Mike Miles was handpicked to bring the district out of a prolonged academic slump. Amid promises of revitalization under Miles, the intervention has triggered controversy, leaving teachers ousted, parents infuriated, and students caught in the crossfire.

“It’s like a jail for kids,” said St. Julian, a parent with four children ages 10, 9, 6 and 5 at a New Education System (NES) school. Children who aren’t always on task should be given grace as “isolating them will not help them learn and grow academically or emotionally.”

The Team Centers also distress Lauren Simmons who has two children, one a 3rd grader, who suffers from dyslexia. The library can no longer be used as a resource for her daughter. “The library was a space for her to not have stressful classroom related reading, we were seeing some major improvements with her reading,” she said.

Simmons, who is running for State Representative, believes that the state takeover is a political attack and will not improve student outcome. In a viral video, she said, “This is an attack on our city, because Houston is a big blue dot in a very red state. We are being punished.”

Another controversial change instituted by Miles is the removal of some teachers, based on various criteria such as performance evaluations, school performance data, strict time off policy, and adherence to the NES model.

That change has “stripped teachers of their autonomy to teach,” said Michelle Williams, a 3rd grade math teacher with 24 years of teaching experience and the president of the Houston Education Association (HEA),  an employee union.

Under the new administration, Williams said that teachers in NES schools are expected to work long hours without compensation and not use their sick days “Teachers were coming to school with the flu, scared to take off,” she said.

Several parents have transferred out of the school district.  Michelle Jordan, a single mother, was so distraught at the teacher changes that she moved her 4th grader to another school 30 minutes away.   A stickler for “routine and stability,” Jordan wanted to maintain a structured lifestyle for her child. “She doesn’t do well with swift changes, if that were to happen to her, her grades would have instantly plummeted,” she said.

Reflecting on this decision, Jordan shared, “It has taken a toll on me. I don’t have reliable transportation, and I moved further away from work. Some days look better than others.”

Tasha Dempsey, a first-time mom, harbors apprehensions about HISD’s new curriculum. Her 4-year-old is set to start school next year, and she worries about how the curriculum changes might impact her child. “With everything going on, I’m considering homeschool.”

Dempsey shares concerns about her child’s talkative nature, fearing potential labeling as disruptive. Dempsey struggles with the uncertainty of what education is evolving into in Houston. “My baby loves to talk, it’s just his personality. I want him to embrace it and it not be used against him,” she said.

 

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