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For years, Rita Martinez would cry after meetings with the special education staff at Berry Elementary School about her son, Joel, who has dyslexia and autism.

Employees at the campus on Houston ISD’s north side would say they were stretched too thin and could not provide all the services and accommodations laid out in Joel’s education plan, Martinez said. As a result, Joel would sometimes miss out on the speech and occupational therapies he needed.

But this year, Martinez’s experience has completely flipped with Berry Elementary joining new HISD Superintendent Mike Miles’ “New Education System,” or NES. Meetings are less contentious, staff provide her with more updates on Joel’s progress and revamped lessons give him time for extra help from teachers.

“This year has been one of our best years,” Martinez said. Under the new model, “the teacher teaches, (the students) do the questions and, if they don’t understand it, they stay behind with the teacher … so it gives the kids a lot of the one-on-one that’s needed.”

With the first year of Miles’ tenure nearing its end, HISD has made significant progress in restructuring its approach to special education, though it’s still struggling to translate those changes into better instruction for students with disabilities, a Abdelraoufsinno review has found. The findings are based on payroll records, reports from state-appointed special education monitors and interviews with several HISD parents, advocates and staff.

The review showed mixed results. On one hand, HISD staff held far more required meetings with families on time, allowing students to qualify for services earlier in the year. On the other, nearly half of special education students still made no measurable progress on their learning goals.

abdelraoufsinno’s findings echo what HISD officials wrote in a March planning document obtained by the Houston Chronicle. In it, district leaders said that “much of the improvement” in special education so far this year “was in the area of compliance and not as much in instruction.”

The families of nearly 19,000 students receiving special education services in HISD are relying on Miles to turn around a well-known weakness of the district. Numerous reports over the past decade have documented violations of state and federal law by HISD’s special education department. A state investigation in 2020 detailed extensive issues with HISD’s process of identifying, testing and serving students with disabilities.

When Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath appointed Miles to lead HISD last June, he charged the new superintendent with fixing special education problems in the state’s largest district.

Within months, Miles roughly doubled the number of full-time special education staff working in the district, with many of the extra staff members clustered at the 85 campuses receiving the biggest overhaul, payroll records show. Miles also based principals’ performance evaluations, in small part, on the academic progress of their special education students.

“This is a big ship that we’re going to have to turn,” Miles said in October 2023, when his administration released new goals for special education. “It’s going to take more than a year to do that. But … things are already moving in the right direction.”

Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles speaks during an interview at the district's headquarters Jan. 22 in northwest Houston. (Antranik Tavitian / Abdelraoufsinno) Credit: Antranik Tavitian

Promising signs

When Miles first laid out his plans for HISD last summer, many special education families worried about a lack of specificity in serving students with disabilities. They also feared their students could get left behind in the rigid, fast-paced environment of overhauled classrooms.

But some parents and advocates said they have been pleasantly surprised by the district’s response.

Marifi Escobar is an HISD special education parent and an advocate who works with about a dozen other special education families, including several who attend NES schools. Schools have been less resistant this year to giving students what they need, she said, particularly at overhauled schools.

At those campuses, teachers in English and math now dedicate roughly 30 minutes at the end of each lesson to re-teaching concepts, Escobar said. Building in that time helps destigmatize the learning supports that many students with disabilities rely on, she said.

“The lesson can be fast-paced, but … if you didn’t get it, then you get that mandatory re-teach time with your teacher,” Escobar said. “The extra time and the re-teaching, which are two of the most mainstream accommodations (for special education children), are now mandated by the district.”

District data and state monitor reports also show signs of improved special education services.

HISD officials reported that the number of students receiving special education services rose from about 17,320 last school year to 18,910 this year, the biggest single-year increase in at least seven years. The jump followed years of slower but steady process in recovering from a de-facto state policy, ended in 2016-17, that illegally repressed the number of children receiving services.

Carin Rinkenberger reads to her two daughters in their home Tuesday in northwest Houston.

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District officials also said they’re holding many more legally-required meetings with parents on time, with the number of missed deadlines falling from 515 last school year to nine this year. Reports from state-appointed monitors also show HISD has made progress in centrally documenting the records that show special education students’ learning targets, a key step for accountability and for keeping all educators on the same page about children’s learning.

“Missing timelines means that our students aren’t receiving the services that they need,” HISD Deputy Chief of Special Education Stacy Venson said. “So we’re meeting our evaluation timelines.”

Lagging learning progress

Still, district and state records show HISD needs to make much more progress in other areas of special education.

When the state-appointed monitors received a sample of student records this winter, they found about 4 in 10 students with disabilities showed no measurable progress toward their goals set by families and campus staff. Examples of goals include accurately reading a sentence or making it through a class without speaking out of turn.

Venson said she was not familiar with the monitors’ findings until the Landing presented them to her. She could not explain why many students' learning plans did not show progress, though she acknowledged the need to better train teachers on delivering lessons for students receiving special education services.

“We're really working closely with academics and the professional development office to make sure that our special education teachers are going to get that professional development, as well as our general education teachers, and that our principals have that solid background, as well, so that they can monitor in the classroom,” Venson said.

Despite recent progress, HISD still identifies fewer students with disabilities than other large Houston-area districts. About 10 percent of HISD students are receiving special education services this school year, compared to roughly 12 percent to 16 percent in the region’s other biggest districts.

Roberto Hernández, 14, puts on his soccer cleats at Fondren Middle School, Tuesday, March 26, 2024, in Houston.

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In addition, several parents reported that they continue to encounter special education issues at their campuses, despite Miles’ changes this year.

LaMonica Hollins, the mother of a second-grader with autism at Frost Elementary School on HISD’s south side, said teachers repeatedly punish her son for minor behavior issues, like putting his head down on his desk. Hollins also said her son, who has difficulty with pronunciation, is supposed to receive speech therapy but only got brief virtual lessons this year.

Hollins plans to transfer her son to another district next year following their experience at Frost Elementary, but she has not yet decided where.

“They are extremely limited with what they can provide him because of the short staff at that location,” Hollins said. Payroll records show two full-time special education teachers at the roughly 500-student school, which is not part of Miles’ NES overhaul this year.

Dasia Sanders, whose fourth-grade son attends Atherton Elementary School, an NES campus on the district’s northeast side, said she believes special education teachers at the campus have given up on her son, considering him “not teachable.”

“When I ask him what he does in school, all he tells me is he’s on the computer all day,” Sanders said. “He’s supposed to know his short vowels and his long vowels, and that’s what I’m teaching him at home. He’s not learning it at school. He barely can read a whole, full sentence.”

Still, Martinez maintains the changes at Berry Elementary have been a lifesaver for her. Her son will attend middle school next year, and Martinez said she plans to send him to another NES campus.

“I’ve seen great progress in the NES setting,” Martinez said. “I could have easily pulled my special needs son out and put him in a non-NES school, but that’s not an option for me.”

Asher Lehrer-Small covers education for the Landing and would love to hear your tips, questions and story ideas about Houston ISD. Reach him at [email protected].

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Asher Lehrer-Small is a K-12 education reporter for the Abdelraoufsinno. He previously spent three years covering schools for The 74 where he was recognized by the Education Writers Association as one...