Vivian Alexander finds a sea of unfamiliar faces these days when she steps into Houston ISD’s Paige Elementary School, the campus her three children attend on the district’s northeast side.
That’s because about 80 percent of employees are new to the school, the result of a massive overhaul launched by the district’s new superintendent, Mike Miles. Only one educator who taught Alexander’s kids last year has returned, she said.
The revamp of Paige’s staff reflects the enormous scope of changes made in recent months at 28 campuses under Miles, who required all teachers at each school to re-apply for their job as part of his dramatic transformation.
A first-of-its-kind analysis by the Houston Landing shows nearly half of employees at the 28 schools — about 720 employees in total — did not return to their campus for 2023-24, a rate that’s more than twice as high as district and state averages. At its most extreme, four schools saw more than two-thirds of their staff replaced.
While those schools lost hundreds of employees, they also received reinforcements, the analysis shows.
The total number of staffers working at those schools has increased, from about 1,500 to 2,000, with a notable jump in the number of employees dedicated to serving students with disabilities. Most of the recent arrivals transferred from other HISD campuses or joined from neighboring districts. At several schools, educators without active certifications made up a significant portion of the new teacher hires.
The Landing’s analysis reveals the sweeping nature of changes at the 28 schools, the extent of which HISD officials had not previously disclosed. The analysis involved comparing payroll data from late in the prior school year to early this school year. The review included all campus-level employees, ranging from clerical staff to teachers to principals.
Miles, who was appointed to lead HISD in June as part of state sanctions against the district, repeatedly reassured anxious parents over the summer that their favorite staff members would have the chance to be re-hired. At the same time, Miles said the staffing overhaul was needed to bring more effective teachers to the 28 schools taking part in his “New Education System,” many of which have struggled academically.
“We're pleased that the staff at these campuses, whether they are new or returning, chose to be part of the New Education System, and we're already witnessing the positive impact of consistent, high-quality instruction at many campuses,” HISD spokesperson Jose Irizarry said in a statement.
In interviews over the past week and a half, 22 parents and grandparents at four schools that saw staff transformations expressed mixed feelings about the approach.
Some, including Alexander, felt the changes damaged their tight-knit school communities.
“I just thought that was wrong to push people who are humble and actually sincerely care about the children, to push them out of their position,” Alexander said.
Others said they liked the new staff and believed the drastic measures were necessary to improve learning. Jarian Reese, whose fifth-grade daughter attends N.Q. Henderson Elementary School, said the new principal called him directly to discuss plans for addressing his child’s ADHD after prior teachers failed to adequately accommodate her.
“Since they’ve been working with her, it’s like her grades have been improved, so I’m not going to count the principal and teachers out this year,” Reese said. “I’m going to give them a chance.”
‘That’s really massive’
For years, high teacher turnover has plagued schools in lower-income neighborhoods across Houston and the nation. The instability typically contributes to poor academic performance, with less-experienced teachers struggling to drive student learning. As a result, administrators traditionally work to retain as many staff as possible.
The radical makeover at 28 HISD schools this year, however, is by design.
Miles has vowed to attract top talent at the campuses — all of which serve large numbers of Black, Latino and lower-income students — by raising average teacher pay at the campuses by $10,000 to $20,000. In addition, he gave principals at those schools the authority to pick their staff, with no guarantee that incumbent employees would get to stay.
“You put your most effective teachers with your least effective kids,” Miles said, explaining his approach during a summer meeting with families. “That’s equity.”
The tactic isn’t new. Known as “reconstitution,” the mass removal of educators at struggling schools became a popular idea during the era of President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” reforms. HISD has overhauled the staff and boosted pay at several campuses in the past under multiple superintendents.
But rarely, if ever, has a superintendent implemented it at this scale, said Ayesha Hashim, an education researcher at the student assessment nonprofit NWEA who has studied schools where large shares of staff are replaced. Typically, districts only reconstitute a few campuses at a time because it’s a labor-intensive process.
“I'm like, ‘Boy, would I love to see what's happening over the next few years,’ because this is bold and it's at a scale that's really massive,” Hashim said. “I just don’t know how it’s going to play out.”
Hashim’s research suggests reconstitution can lead to improved student learning, but only when the newly hired staff are high-quality educators who stick around for several years.
Lots of green
In reconstituting schools this year, HISD leaders have relied heavily on teachers who came from elsewhere in the district or moved from Houston-area traditional public school districts. A fractional percentage joined from charter schools or out-of-region districts.
However, HISD also embraced greener talent, a common practice in charter districts like Third Future Schools, which Miles ran before taking the Houston job. When Miles’ network took over two Texas schools in recent years, the average years of teacher experience dropped from about 9 to 7 at one campus and 10 to 6 at the other.
This year, three of the five reconstituted HISD schools with the highest turnover rate — N.Q. Henderson, Bruce and Paige elementary schools — brought in an abnormally high share of uncertified educators.
About one-third to half of new teachers at those three campuses do not have active educator certificates, according to a state database. Typically, about 5 percent of new HISD teacher hires are uncertified.
At the same time, the reconstituted campuses each added an average of 17 new positions this year. The number of staff serving special education students has tripled, while another 360 teachers and assistants roles tied to the turnaround model were added.
The increase in staff will cost an extra $58 million in salary this year, or roughly $2 million per school, according to payroll records. That figure doesn’t include benefits or a $10,000 stipend provided to teachers at the 28 campuses this year.
HISD is projected to run a budget deficit of nearly $250 million in 2023-24, prompting questions about the sustainability of the extra spending.
‘Everything is different’
The reshuffling has provoked concern, excitement and uncertainty for families and staff.
Wheatley High School history teacher Rashad Humphrey, who’s new to the Greater Fifth Ward campus this year, said a pay bump of roughly $30,000 and the opportunity to work at a majority-Black school lured him to apply.
However, Humphrey’s hopefulness soured when he experienced an “oppressive” school environment. He predicted HISD’s rigid teaching model and willingness to replace educators could drive away quality talent.
“Maybe new teachers, people that don’t know anything else, may stick around,” Humphrey said. “But I think that's kind of what (the HISD leaders) want. They want to push out older teachers like myself and put in newer teachers who aren’t going to rock the boat.”
Families at Key Middle School, another campus where the vast majority of educators were replaced, relayed mostly positive impressions of the new staff. They described a higher level of professionalism than in prior years, with teachers sporting dressier apparel than usual at a recent open house, and an increased commitment to maintaining student behavior.
“I was very impressed about how (the new staff) are going to discipline them,” said Tinesha Lynch, who has had two children attend the campus on HISD’s northeast side. “I mean, I felt like they were talking directly to me.”
Mary Prejean, whose sixth and seventh graders attend Key, said she appreciates the district’s willingness to try a new approach. Key’s academic scores have ranked among the lowest in HISD over the past decade, though the campus received a B rating from the state in 2022.
“They realized the children were not learning,” Prejean said. “Well, what could we do to help them move along? Because everybody learns at a different pace. So they’re just trying different strategies now.”
The reshuffle at Paige, however, has disturbed Alexander, who’s unsettled by watching the new staff and the tactics they’re required to follow under the New Education System model.
“It just feels different,” Alexander said. “Everything is different.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.