Houston ISD's first day of classes under the leadership of state-appointed Superintendent Mike Miles was full of rigorous instruction.
Houston ISD's first day of classes under the leadership of state-appointed Superintendent Mike Miles was full of rigorous instruction. Credit: Flickr/USAG Humphreys

Lauren Simmons wakes up every day navigating the challenges of being a local education advocate and a devoted mother to two school-aged HISD students. Her days are a delicate balance between nurturing her children and fighting for better educational outcomes for all HISD stakeholders, including students, teachers, administrators and parents.

Her son is a junior at Yates High School and her daughter is a third-grader at Lockhart Elementary, who was diagnosed with dyslexia last year.

Her journey has not been easy advocating for the needs of special needs children, while speaking up at school board meetings on how the district can do better with their approach to helping students from underserved communities, but she said concerns “still fall on deaf ears.”

She pondered how the swift changes made by HISD Superintendent Mike Miles will impact the overall experience of her children.

“I’m noticing that teachers are trying to keep an air of normalcy, but my daughter noticed the difference and how things were quick paced,” she said. “That’s a red flag for me because I’m concern for children like my daughter who will be left behind. When you can’t keep up in class you become a behavior problem, then they send you to those ‘team centers,’ then Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs, then they’re going to juvenile and be written off into the system.”

Simmons has communicated with other parents who’ve said their children’s classrooms look “stale and dry,” with no décor, or cozy spaces for reading books.

“Why would our kids come there voluntarily to be in jail; stifling their creativity, fine arts, and extracurriculars only to be drilled day to day to prepare for tests,” she said. “HISD has it worse days, but let’s be honest, if the state really funded our schools, our district would not be in such disarray.”

This month, the district cut the special education contract jobs, including disability experts, to hire full-time special education employees. The district website currently has more than 30 open special education positions.

Miles also instituted a plan called New Education System aimed at addressing the long-standing issues of low reading proficiency and standardized test scores in the district. He adopted a series of reforms which include a more rigorous instructional approach. There are 28 schools in the NES system and 57 schools that opted to be in the NES-aligned system [including Yates and Lockhart], a slightly tempered version of the reform program.

In a press conference, Miles addressed concerns about the strategy used to teach curriculum. He said having a model that is tied to a rigorous schedule for example, 45 minutes of direct instruction then demonstration of learning for 10 minutes, keeps teachers on track. Students who show understanding of the material go to the team centers for advanced study, while others stayed behind with their teachers for the remainder of the class.

“Teachers are just going to get better at that,” he said. It’s going to become natural to the kids.”

Jessica Campos is an HISD parent whose 10-year-old daughter goes to school at Pugh Elementary, an NES school. Her daughter is also dyslexic.

“My daughter was concern about whether she was going to be pulled out for her intervention like she used to. She still hasn’t been pulled out,” said Campos. “It raises the question about whether the school is prepared for these types of concerns.”

In July, Miles hosted his third community meeting at Pugh Elementary over the fate of the school’s dual language programs, staff layoffs and the hiring of its new principal, Keith Garcia, who doesn’t speak Spanish, which is an issue considering 97% of the student body is Hispanic.

“There are so many changes. It’s almost like a cult took over the school. Our great teachers, things we value the most are diminished,” she said. “And with the loss of qualified teachers, I’m also concerned about the number of uncertified teachers there are and its impact on student outcomes in the long run.”

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...