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Sweat beads on Houston ISD eighth-grader Roberto Hernández’s forehead as he walks to the corner store for a bottle of water after soccer practice. The late afternoon sun stretches his shadow far across the grass.

Reflecting, Roberto ticks off the ways his campus, Fondren Middle School, has changed this year: Students take short quizzes each day in most classes, the library that used to have beanbags is now filled with desks, and core classes assign half an hour of worksheets after the day’s main lesson.

Those are new policies HISD Superintendent Mike Miles has implemented this year at 85 schools, including Fondren Middle, as part of a district overhaul meant to improve academics. Next year, the model will include 130 schools — roughly half the district.

Under the new structure, Roberto says he feels like he’s learning. The teaching methods are tiring, but rigorous, he says. However, he’s concerned for some of his classmates, who he says often get frustrated and tune out. To avoid the extra worksheets given to students deemed ready for advanced content, they intentionally flunk the daily quizzes, Roberto says.

Why we wrote this story

  • HISD Superintendent Mike Miles has described his district overhaul as the biggest school reform effort in modern history. We wanted to hear how it’s going from the students who are living the changes each day.
  • Students’ descriptions point to a disconnect between the classroom rules Miles has mandated and the way lessons tend to play out in practice.

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Other students, in rooms designated for quiet, independent work, sneak screen time without adults seeming to notice.

“Most of the time, kids just focus on their phones; they don’t even want to do the work,” Roberto says. “When teachers are not around, when they’re not looking, they just get on their phones or play games. … There’s no one who’s paying attention to them.”

Roberto is one of tens of thousands of HISD students who have experienced Miles’ controversial “New Education System” in real time this year, and one of more than 180,000 attending Texas’ largest district during a historic period of state intervention.

With the better part of the school year in the books, the Abdelraoufsinno interviewed 14 HISD teens from 12 different schools — including five overhauled campuses — over the last three weeks to hear their first-hand accounts of the changes. abdelraoufsinno published a similar report in November. This update features mostly new voices, but includes some overlap.

Together, the students’ perspectives paint a portrait of daily life in HISD schools under Miles’ leadership, now that campuses have had time to adjust to the revamp and students have begun to settle into what some called the “new normal.”

Most students, even at non-NES schools, said their campuses feel different this year. Lessons now include new teaching methods that encourage students to talk through or write out their thinking, administrators enforce stricter cellphone policies, and a steady stream of observers go in and out of classrooms to assess educators’ performance, students said.

Miles, who was appointed HISD superintendent by Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath last June, has said the changes are needed to improve student learning after years of flat test scores, with wide gaps along lines of race and income. Preliminary mid-year test results released in January appeared to back his argument: After a semester of classes, students at overhauled schools averaged more than a year’s-worth of growth in reading and three-quarters of a year in math.

However, students offered mixed reviews on whether the changes actually have helped them learn. Many said their teachers have superficially implemented Miles’ preferred teaching methods, snapping into forced modes of instruction when observers enter the room and the rest of the time ignoring the recommended strategies.

Here’s what students told us, in their own words. Their responses have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Performative adherence to policies

For the majority of the 14 students, the most obvious difference between this school year and past years has been the regular presence of campus leadership and district staff in classrooms to observe teachers’ instruction.

Miles has said the policy is meant to provide real-time coaching to teachers and ensure instructional methods are consistent across the district. Observers look for teachers to regularly engage students in their lessons with techniques such as asking them to turn and talk with a partner or to write a response on a whiteboard at their desk, according to evaluation rubrics.

However, students said most teachers ignore the recommended methods except when observers step into the room. Then, they crack down on phone use and implement new teaching strategies at seemingly random junctures. Some students said they have grown accustomed to the frequent observations, while others said they still find them jarring.

Lorgi Martinez, senior, Sterling High School: We have somebody who will say, “Oh, such-and-such is coming,” whether it’s the principal or (assistant principal) or anything like that. And once that person calls that signal, everybody puts their phones up. It’s kind of just like we have to play along. … It’s not even just in that class. In my English class or in my other classes, when we see an administrator or principal, we’re like, “Hooty hoot!” or something like that and we’ll just all put our phones up, put away our headsets, act like we’re doing some work until they leave.

Alexa Ramos, senior, High School for Law and Justice: There's still a lot of people coming into the classroom and observing, but I think my teachers are kind of used to it now. It's just another day at school teaching. It used to affect me more … but because my teachers are doing well with working with it, so am I.

Mia Duran, senior, East Early College High School: When somebody is in the class, out of nowhere, the teacher might have to be like, “OK, guys. Now turn and talk to your partner about this and that.” And it doesn’t really fit the lesson, but they have to do it. I remember in my art class this week … somebody came in to observe, and, it’s like, “Everybody, stop. Let’s do a gallery walk just so we can see this and that, and then talk to your partner about what art piece you liked.” And it’s not working because it’s not natural for us to do that.

Keira Bradley, senior, High School for Law and Justice: We’ll watch a video and, then, it’s like, “What did the video talk about.” It’s very generic questions, just trying to meet the requirement of having a conversation. … We go around the classroom and every single table in the classroom has to answer those exact questions. … So, we're all just saying the same thing over and over again just to meet this requirement of talking amongst each other.

Drastic changes at NES schools

The 85 schools in Miles’ NES program have seen the most drastic changes this year, from adding staff and altering several courses to cutting librarians and requiring students to take traffic cones with them to the bathroom as hall passes.

Now that students have had the better part of a school year to adjust to the new methods, most said they’re getting used to the model. However, students had mixed feelings about teachers’ new classroom strategies. In most students’ eyes, the changes have added tiresome busywork and strict behavior codes without necessarily promoting rigor.

In addition, one student described aspects of the NES model that did not seem to be functioning as intended. Miles has celebrated the DYAD courses he added at NES schools, in which community members teach students skills such as photography or martial arts.

At Fondren Middle, Roberto’s gardening class fell flat when kids got tired of working in the dirt and refused to engage, he said. A month ago, the school replaced gardening with a fitness course, bringing in a new DYAD instructor, Roberto said.

Jayla London, senior, Yates High School: As far as the teaching rules go and, obviously, having to take cones to the restroom, I guess I’m getting more used to it, because it’s a rule and you just have to follow it. … Senior year hasn't been the most informative. It's just been more of following the rules than actually learning.

Jack Yates High School senior, student council president and captain of the cheer team Jayla London, 17, leads the cheer team during practice, Thursday
Jack Yates High School senior, student council president and captain of the cheer team Jayla London, 17, leads the cheer team during practice on Nov. 2, 2023, in Houston. (Abdelraoufsinno file photo / Marie D. De Jesús)

Emily Mejia, senior, Wisdom High School: I like the whiteboards, but I’m not really too fond of the partner (turn and talk) because I’m not too social, so it’s uncomfortable. … I remember my first period would force it upon us to actually do it. … Some (students) do it and some fake it.

Roberto Hernández, eighth grade, Fondren Middle School: I heard that they were going to (increase) the teachers’ pay. … I had (asked) one of my teachers if it was true and she said, “Yeah,” it was true and that it was going to be next year, and she was very excited about that. … I think it’s a very good thing because teachers don’t get paid enough for what they do.

Teachers at overhauled schools earn $10,000 to $20,000 more than educators at other schools in the district. This year, Fondren Middle opted into a slimmed version of Miles’ reform program. Like all so-called “NES-aligned” campuses, higher rates of employee compensation will kick in for the 2024-25 school year.

Carlos Alvarado, senior, Furr High School: This year, it’s a lot. You learn a lot, but to the point where it just sucks you up.

Stricter schools (sometimes)

Virtually all students said their schools have placed an increased emphasis on behavior policies this year, including a crackdown on cellphones, tardiness and hoodies.

At Heights High School, 10th grader Christianna Thomas described a new, time-consuming policy her peers call “tardy jail” that requires students late to class to wait in the auditorium before gaining approval to return to class.

While some students described strict standards all year long, others said educators have relaxed their enforcement of the rules over time. In the fall, HISD published data saying student discipline incidents had decreased across the district, including at overhauled schools, but several students said fights have continued at about the same rate as the past.

Lorgi Martinez, senior, Sterling High School: Fights are still happening at my school. I don’t think there’s really been much change. I just think it’s been more aggravation from students and teachers and really just frustration.

Christianna Thomas, sophomore, Heights High School: If the bell rings and you’re not in the classroom, you have to go to the auditorium — and we have a pretty big school, so it’s a walk … sit in the auditorium, wait until they let your row go, get a paper, wait like 10 minutes and then you get released back to class. … So, it just wastes so much class time. My friend got (back to class) with 15 minutes left of class because, one day, there were so many kids that were late that it took her so long.

Alexander Hernandez, senior, Energy Institute High School: A lot of the new policies, I guess people just stopped caring. … There’s been a lot less care and stress about the new administration. There's not a lot of follow through on the things like the cellphones or the HISD-approved teaching strategies and things like that.

Roberto Hernández, eighth grade, Fondren Middle School: We have a lot more (staff). … A lot of them make sure that when we transition to the next class, we have to be at level zero (silent) in the hallway. If we’re not, then that’s detention. It definitely feels more secure, but at the same time, it's annoying the fact that they just keep watching over us, over and over again.

Teaching the takeover

Miles’ changes to HISD quickly became one of the largest news stories in Houston after his appointment. Some students have attempted to make sense of the issue in their classes and extracurriculars.

In one case, Bellaire High School senior and school newspaper managing editor Ariana Castañeda attempted to pursue stories related to educational changes under Miles. However, campus leadership would decline to answer student journalists’ questions, she said, which had never happened in years past.

In another instance, High School for Law and Justice senior Keira Bradley said one of her teachers assigned a project about the Texas Education Agency’s intervention in HISD. The assignment required a six-slide PowerPoint on the takeover, according to a document Bradley provided the Landing.

Ariana Castañeda, senior, Bellaire High School: In our junior year, last year, (our principal) wasn't really reluctant to speak on policies that he was hoping to implement or changes that he was hoping to bring to Bellaire. Now, because a lot of what we're covering, … it's the district’s policies that are being implemented throughout the school, he hasn't really been super receptive to answer our questions or emails.

Keira Bradley, senior, High School for Law and Justice: We did a project on the TEA takeover and the requirements were: three things that you find good about TEA, three things that you find bad about TEA and then what is your opinion on TEA. So, they’re making a conscious effort to educate us on what’s going on. My economics teacher was encouraging us that, if we don’t like something, then we need to be attending these (school board) meetings and we need to be speaking out about it so that we can make a change for the students that come after us.

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...