Dana Castro used to adore Coop Elementary School, the Houston ISD neighborhood campus her fourth-grade daughter, Mila, attended on the district’s north side. But when Castro learned in August that Coop’s principal opted to join state-appointed Superintendent Mike Miles’ overhaul of dozens of schools, she decided she needed to get out.

After listening to Miles’ presentations about his designs for campuses like Coop — pre-planned lessons, daily quizzes, repurposing parts of libraries into discipline areas — Castro pulled her daughter from the school weeks before classes began. Mila eventually landed at HISD’s Love Elementary School, located about nine miles away.

“It broke my heart because I had made relationships with teachers, with parents, with students,” Castro said. “I apologized to the other parents. I was like, ‘I’m sorry you can’t move your kid right now out of there.’ But I had to.”

As HISD’s new school year began, hundreds of HISD families made a similar choice to leave the 85 schools undergoing drastic changes pushed by Miles, early attendance data obtained by the Houston Landing shows.

Over the first week of school, average daily attendance across the 85 schools in Miles’ “New Education System” was down about 2,090 students, or 5 percent, compared to first-week attendance last year. The other roughly 185 schools in HISD, meanwhile, saw attendance drop by 225, a 0.2 percent decline.

Put differently, attendance at schools undergoing transformation declined by an average of 25 students, while campuses largely untouched by Miles’ overhaul lost about one student per school.

It is not clear how many students leaving the 85 campuses departed because their family disagreed with Miles’ plans for their child’s school. Charter school expansion and changes in the number of children living near a campus can impact enrollment. HISD also has a robust in-district school choice system, in which students can choose to leave their neighborhood campus to attend another school. 

HISD officials did not respond to requests for comment about the first-week attendance figures. HISD will conduct an official enrollment tally in late October.

A dip in enrollment is expected across HISD. Texas’ largest district has bled roughly 4,000 students a year since an enrollment peak of about 216,000 in 2016-17. The losses appear to have continued this year, with about 181,500 students attending HISD schools as of mid-September, down from 184,000 at the end of last year, according to an update from Miles during a mid-September press conference.

In recent years, the 85 campuses have also seen enrollment fall — albeit at a slightly slower rate than the first-week attendance drop. 

Between 2018-19 and 2022-23, the NES schools reported an annual average enrollment dip of about 1,720 students, or roughly 3 percent. By comparison, enrollment at the non-NES schools slipped about 2,170 students on average each year, or 1.5 percent, during that same period

Miles’ approach to overhauling the 85 targeted campuses has frustrated some HISD parents. The new superintendent has standardized the curriculum, delivered set lesson plans to teachers, changed the school day schedule and replaced some principals, among numerous other changes. Miles has said the changes are necessary to raise student achievement at many campuses that have lagged behind for years.

Now, more than a month into the school year, families who are frustrated with the changes have limited options for leaving those campuses. 

The district allows for certain “special transfers,” such as cases when students with disabilities are not getting their needs met or if there are “extenuating circumstances” requiring a child to attend school close to their parents’ place of work, known as a “hardship” transfer.

In late September, Marisela Vasquez successfully petitioned for a hardship transfer, allowing her seventh-grade daughter to leave Project Chrysalis Middle School, a school that joined Miles’ overhaul program this year, for Tanglewood Middle School.

Vasquez said her family loved the Project Chrysalis, which received an A rating under Texas’ academic accountability system last year, but her daughter felt the classroom instruction backslid this year. Vasquez said her daughter and some of her daughter’s classmates would intentionally bomb regular quizzes, known as Demonstrations of Learning, to avoid being sent to a separate room to silently complete worksheets with accelerated material.

Meanwhile, the campus got caught in a power struggle with the district over adherence to Miles’ model, spurring parent protests and the dismissal of two teachers for “insubordination,” the Houston Press reported.

“These were straight-A students, these were these brilliant kids who love to read and write, and now they’re being dumbed down to worksheets and this (Demonstration of Learning) and tests,” Vasquez said.

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    Terry Jackson, whose daughter attends Lawson Middle School on the district’s southwest side, said she was caught off-guard by the new school culture this year, leading her to question whether to keep her child at the campus. Jackson likes the staff at Lawson, but she understands employees have an obligation to execute Miles’ model.

    Lawson saw one of the district’s most dramatic drops in average first-week attendance, sliding from 1,190 last year to 985 this year.

    “The NES-aligned model doesn’t allow them to socialize with their friends,” Jackson said. “For example, they have to walk in a straight line in the hallway. They can’t engage with each other in the hallway. They can barely engage with each other during class.

    “If I had the option to move (my daughter), I would immediately.”

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