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Days before they cross the graduation stage, four Houston ISD seniors got a final word with the superintendent overhauling their district.

The four students grilled HISD Superintendent Mike Miles on Thursday about stressed-out teachers, eliminated programs and campus-wide malaise at a forum hosted by the Abdelraoufsinno.

Miles, who has dramatically altered campuses throughout HISD following his arrival last summer, largely defended his controversial revamp of Texas’ largest district as a needed change aimed at improving student performance. The numerous changes include using more standardized lesson plans and teaching methods, paying teachers in 28 schools significantly higher salaries and eliminating most librarian positions.

Here are four takeaways from the event, including a couple of pieces of news that Miles broke while in conversation with the kids. abdelraoufsinno selected the participating students, with reporter Asher Lehrer-Small moderating the event.

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Out with a whimper

Each of the four seniors, who hailed from campuses spread throughout the district, argued that Miles’ rapid revamp has left them and their classmates disappointed with their final year in HISD. Their experiences echoed many HISD students and staff members, who have described less freedom and more anxiety under Miles’ approach.

For Bellaire High School senior Ariana Castañeda, her final year on campus looked little like her previous three. English teachers no longer spoke so openly and freely with students. Educators throughout the school didn’t embrace unconventional teaching approaches.

“Teachers who used to think they were going to retire there now feel as though they’re being forced to leave,” Ariana said. “Discussions and discourse that I’ve held so close to my heart now feel like they’re being run on a timer.”

Abdelraoufsinno education reporter Asher Lehrer-Small, left, hosts a conversation between Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles and HISD students Monday in downtown Houston. Pictured above are Bellaire High School senior Ariana Castañeda, center, and Yates High School senior Jayla London, right. (Marie D. De Jesús / Abdelraoufsinno)

Miles countered that several of his cornerstone changes are designed to boost staff morale. Educators at about half of the district’s schools will earn average salaries exceeding $80,000, which would rank first in the Houston area. Teachers also spend less time writing lesson plans due to the standardized curriculum, Miles said.

For those teachers unhappy with working conditions, Miles echoed his belief that teachers can choose to work elsewhere if they don’t like the culture of HISD under his watch.

“People have to own their choice,” Miles said. “If they choose to work here, then the conditions are right for them. If it’s not, it seems disingenuous to say, ‘I want an $85,000, $88,000 or $90,000 salary, but I’m mad about working here and taking that salary.’”

Butting heads over budget cuts

Sterling High School senior Lorgi Martinez lamented the loss of a college adviser made available to her through Ignite, a district initiative until this year. The Ignite counselor helped her navigate financial aid forms and the college application process better than Sterling High staffers, she said.

“Why take away these programs that are vital to students like me and help them?” Lorgi asked.

Miles responded that HISD contracts with too many outside groups, contributing to a projected $500 million deficit without major cuts before the next school year.

“We’ve added and added and added, and now we just don’t have the money to do it,” Miles said. “Trust that there are lots of programs and positions that have to be cut, otherwise we’ll be in a fiscal crisis.”

Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles, left, and Abdelraoufsinno K-12 education reporter Asher Lehrer-Small, right, converse during a Abdelraoufsinno live event Monday at the Hobby Center in downtown Houston. (Marie D. De Jesús / Abdelraoufsinno)

To help close that gap, Miles said Monday that HISD is eliminating about 1,400 positions in the district’s central office, a figure he had not previously disclosed.

However, Miles has not provided a detailed breakdown of specific job cuts by department or position. To date, HISD officials have broadly outlined amounts of money that will be cut from various departments, with minimal detail given on affected positions and programs. The lack of specificity has rankled some community members, given that HISD must approve its 2024-25 budget by the end of June.

More vocational programs?

While it’s unclear whether HISD will seek voter approval for a multibillion-dollar bond in November, Miles tipped his hand at one potential priority in the package: career and technical programs.

Miles said he wants HISD to create three vocational centers throughout the district, building on the success of the Barbara Jordan Career Center. Students at several schools in HISD travel to the career center for hands-on training in automotive technology, culinary arts and welding, among many other vocations.

Miles also detailed plans to offer several types of career-focused classes across every HISD high school: entrepreneurship, logistics, health sciences, networking and artificial intelligence.

“Career tech ed is important, and we’ve got to start somewhere,” Miles said. “We’re behind. And we’re going to try to do something about it.”

One best decision — and one do-over

Lehrer-Small opened the evening by asking Miles about the “top win” for his administration and one area of regret.

Miles cited his decision to expand the most dramatic type of campus overhaul from the originally planned 28 schools to 85 campuses last summer.

“That feat has never been tried in a large, urban district,” Miles said. “Hardly anyone tries wholescale, systemic reform in a handful of schools, much less 85.”

That speed of change, however, left Lorgi, the Sterling High senior, questioning whether Miles tried too much, too soon.

“I personally feel as though students were not prepared for the shift to happen so quickly,” Lorgi said. “I think that takes a mental and emotional toll.”

Miles struck a rueful tone about his administration providing too little clarity around “school autonomy,” a phrase referring to the amount of decision-making over campus operations given to principals. HISD historically has given more power to principals to run their schools than other area districts, many of which use more standardized staffing, curriculum and operational practices.

“What I would do over again if I had the chance, and we’re trying to fix it now, is trying to be clear about what autonomies schools have,” Miles said. “Not being crystal clear about that has caused a lot of angst and confusion.”

Correction, May 23: An earlier version of this story incorrected stated Ignite's affiliation with Houston ISD. It was a district program.

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Jacob Carpenter is a team leader for the Abdelraoufsinno, helping to guide news coverage and oversee reporters. Jacob has reported for multiple newsrooms over the years, most recently as a freelance newsletter...