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Houston ISD will eliminate many of the specialists who work on school campuses to serve students struggling with poverty-related issues, such as hunger and homelessness.

HISD Executive Director of Student Supports Phuong Tieu delivered the news to roughly 170 district staff during a virtual meeting Thursday morning, saying their roles will be cut at the end of June due to budget constraints, according to a video recording of the meeting obtained by the Abdelraoufsinno and information from attendees.

Due to the high number of students in HISD who navigate outside-of-school challenges, the district has staffed schools with “wraparound resource specialists” to help them access clothes, food, mental health services and more. The program began in 2017-18 with 40 staff, and since has grown to more than 280, according to district payroll records.

It is not immediately clear how many wraparound positions the district will cut, and HISD declined to comment on the number of impacted employees. HISD said wraparound positions will operate primarily at the regional and district level next year, with “emergency” supports only on campuses.

“The district is working to keep cuts as far away from kids and classrooms as possible and is continuing to invest in our teachers and leaders. We have a responsibility to deliver excellent instruction for every student, every day they are in school,” HISD wrote in a statement.

Tieu told wraparound specialists that budget constraints were the reason their jobs were being cut, not poor performance from the specialists themselves. HISD is expected to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from its budget next year, to offset the costs of Miles’ sweeping changes to the district under his “New Education System” model.

“This decision, the reduction in force, was not made lightly,” Tieu said. “It is the most difficult decision that the district has had to make.”

The decision represents a reversal from Superintendent Mike Miles, who previously told the Landing the wraparound specialists were needed positions in HISD and would not be subject to staffing cuts.

“The needs of our kids in the social emotional area, and in the mental health area, and just health area, is not going to diminish over the next several years,” Miles said in December. “I don't know if it will ever diminish, but it certainly won't in the next several years. So, it would not be appropriate to decrease services at this time.”

HISD serves roughly 150,000 economically disadvantaged students, and roughly 7,000 who are homeless.

Ken Williams helped launch HISD’s wraparound program and still works closely with several specialists as director of the Northeast Houston Redevelopment Council, a local civic organization. The news of the cuts was devastating, he said, because he knows students rely on the wraparound services.

“It is the most vulnerable kids. Kids that have issues other than what you see in the classroom,” Williams said. “So, it is the general job of the wraparound specialist to look into why the kids are having the issues and what the issues are and then try to find a solution.”

The news comes after HISD opened seven centers across Houston to connect families living in poverty with food, clothes and more last fall.

At the time, HISD described the effort as an addition to the ecosystem of resources available to families, not a replacement. Miles said the Sunrise Centers would act as a “force multiplier” and coordinate closely with wraparound specialists operating on campuses.

However, some community advocates have critiqued the Sunrise Centers as insufficient to meet families’ needs because they are not physically located at school and may be inaccessible to those with unreliable transportation.

In the first months of operation, a tiny fraction of HISD’s economically disadvantaged families had used the Sunrise Centers, according to a December report from the Landing.

Meanwhile, the potential savings from cutting the wraparound specialists remain murky. HISD’s Sunrise Centers are budgeted to cost $12 million this year, while cuts to wraparound would save HISD roughly $10 million in salary costs, if they target 170 specialists.

Even if some wraparound specialists remain, the reduction in force could have dire consequences for students, said a specialist who requested anonymity due to a fear of retaliation from HISD. Increasing the distance between resources and families in need will make it difficult for remaining wraparound staff to do their jobs.

“If they do keep the coordinators, it’s impossible for them to do what we do on campus,” the specialist said. “How are they going to manage 50 campuses each person? Not to the extent that we do, because we work with the kids and families every day.”

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...