Q&A with Superintendent Millard House II: HISD's 5-year plan
HISD Superintendent Millard House II. Photo by Aswad Walker.

HISD Superintendent Millard House II released the district’s five-year strategic plan. What does it mean for parents, students, teachers, and school staff?

According to HISD, the plan will implement six commitments to improve work culture and education outcomes while focusing the need to retain qualified teachers, building trust with parents and providing equal access to opportunities across all schools.

House’s first 100 days as superintendent consisted of hosting “Listen and Learn” sessions to understand the concerns of community members and their hopes and expectations of the school district.

House also focused on preparing students for the safe return to in-person learning and plans around major COVID-19 related educational topics that has impacted the district.

The Defender spoke with House about the plan for the district.

Defender: You came into this role in June 2021. What are your honest thoughts about how you’ve been able to lead HISD so far?

House: The Houston community has been extremely welcoming. My wife and two kids… it’s something that we didn’t take lightly. We’ve enjoyed the opportunity to dig into the work and that is what brings us to today with the strategic plan. I’m very excited about having the opportunity with the first hundred days to listen to the community and plan our priorities and commitments around what that looks like. 

Defender: You came at a crucial time, especially during the challenging time between HISD and Texas Education Agency and the takeover. How is the relationship been between your leadership team and the board? 

House: It has been a positive experience. One of the first things I did actually before signing the contract is I wanted to have a conversation with the commissioner of education. What I learned during that conversation was that we weren’t far off at all on what we felt the children needed to do in order to be successful. Many of those things are in this plan. So, I actually have had the opportunity to have a conversation with the commissioner in [February] around what’s in this plan. I can tell you that he was excited to see where we’re going and very supportive of the work that we’re doing. We want to continue with that kind of momentum and ensure that TEA is a partner in what we do moving forward.

Defender: What other plans do you have to address recruiting, qualifications and resources for educators to properly function in the classroom, especially for educators of color?

House: We know the traditional means of bringing teachers into the profession through a college of education. What we also know is that the colleges of educations are not in a place right now where they have the numbers to support the vacancies that are out there. So, it’s really pushed a nontraditional approach of school districts growing their own teachers and partnering with universities to grow their own. For instance, I was a college athlete and played basketball in college, and I went to college absolutely free.

One of the strategies around this plan would allow for us to move forward and take a core group of people that we feel will be great teachers and pay for their tuition to go to college and get their bachelor’s degree. And along the way, make sure that they’re coupled with some of the best teachers during the four years while they’re working in an teaching assistant position.

We think there are some great strategies that we can do to lift up the profession in a manner that is not cost prohibiting, but it’s productive in terms of the future lack of debt that they won’t have behind it. We believe those kinds of things will be very attractive. And we believe by ensuring that grow-your-own programs are coupled with some of the best experienced teachers that we can provide will make a major difference also.

Defender: You announced a central office hiring freeze for the remainder of the 2021-2022 fiscal year which runs through June 30. What will this decision mean for families and students?

House: That simply means that we needed to start at the district office at Hattie Mae White [Educational Support Center]. We do have a hiring freeze in place, as well as a spending freeze because this is an organization that I inherited that had deficit-based budgets for years. We’re going to work toward over the next five years of not being in a place where we have a deficit paid budget. In order to do that, you have to make difficult decisions.

This was one of those difficult decisions that we didn’t want to wait until year two [or] until year three to start making these kinds of decisions that make sense for the organization. So, on top of the central office hiring freeze and spending freeze, we have also instituted a 75% freeze at the school level as well for spending. Now this is just for the last three months of the school year, but this will allow for us to realize some savings that we can definitely move forward to be a part of this strategic work that we think is extremely important for the future.

Defender: How did the district get into a deficit in the first place?

House: For the last 10 or 15 years, HISD has had a drop in student enrollment…While we have lost students, we have not changed the way we operated. We have not right- sized the school district over the course of time. We have to go in and make tough decisions because we haven’t made those tough decisions for several years, in reference to the loss of students. Now, part of this plan is about ensuring that there’s a baseline experience to bring children back into our neighborhood schools and sure that they have a quality experience. So we want to see less student loss and more students gained annually as we move forward into this plan.

Defender: Last summer HISD was slated to receive $1.1 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding to be spent over the next three school years to make up for learning loss in schools. How has the allocation of these funds helped move your strategic plan forward?

House: COVID relief [ESSER funds], can’t be spent on everything. We also have to remember that these dollars are not around for more than three years and we already have one of those years behind us. We also want make sure that from a transparency standpoint that people know what these dollars are being spent on. We’ve moved forward to start the development of a front-facing platform. That will be on our website where a parent or community member can go in and take a look at what exactly we’re spending those dollars on what year, down to the school level. We’re excited to be able to provide that level of transparency so people can know that we are doing what’s in the best interest of this school district and our children.

We’re just rolling out the strategic plan. As a new superintendent, you always have to take time to analyze, read the data and build a plan that’s where we are now. We’re moving forward with the execution of the plan. But these dollars will definitely be working as a support to this plan.

Prior to that, we put some things in place in terms of ESSER dollars and COVID relief funds to help afterschool tutoring at just about every one of our schools in the district, as well as wraparound, social and emotional support services at just about every school in the district as well. So there are several things that we put in place. We also made a lot changes that really align to the needs of their particular schools. So the dollars are at work and we have plans for the additional dollars for 2023 and 2024 as well.

Laura Onyeneho

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,...