Thousands of students across Houston ISD will walk Monday morning through the doors of schools that operate very differently than they did mere months ago.

Staff rosters might be filled with unfamiliar faces, bell schedules will be new, libraries could be lined with rows of desks and campuses will remain open longer.

The changes are part of an effort from new Superintendent Mike Miles to roll out “wholescale, systemic reform” across 85 campuses this year. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath appointed Miles and a replacement school board on June 1 amid sanctions against HISD primarily tied to low academic performance at Wheatley High School. 

Miles has moved quickly to roll out a slate of changes that will impact virtually every element of day-to-day operations at the schools participating. The other roughly 175 district-run campuses will look largely the same this fall. 

Many parents have said they’ve had a hard time keeping up. So if you spent the summer kicking back, relaxing and focusing on, well, anything other than school — fear not. 

Here’s a full summary of how dozens of campuses will look different this year, from the classroom to the playground. The following applies to 28 “New Education System” schools targeted for transformation, most of which are in the Kashmere, North Forest and Wheatley feeder patterns, and another 57 “New Education System-aligned” campuses that signed on to the changes. (See the full list here.)

The classroom

Students at NES and NES-aligned schools will notice changes in how their classrooms run.

First off, many lessons will include what Miles calls a “demonstration of learning,” similar to a quiz. The daily ritual will give teachers a better look at what their students know and don’t know, Miles has said, and will determine whether students can tackle accelerated assignments or need to hang back for extra help.

From there, teachers will follow a standardized lesson plan, with many of the lesson materials — curriculum, quizzes, answer keys, assignments, PowerPoint slides — developed by the district’s central administration. Some teachers have criticized the changes, saying they prefer to have the freedom to design their own lesson plans. But Miles argues it will save educators time, allowing them to focus more on their classroom instruction.

Students will also see new assistants called “associate teachers,” who will be responsible for grading work, and more operations staff who will print worksheets.

“Teachers always say they want better work-life balance,” Miles said. “Here it is. You leave at 4:15, you’re done. You don’t have to make lesson plans, you don’t have to copy papers, you don’t have to grade papers.”

Meanwhile, doors to almost all classrooms across the district will stay open during the day, allowing principals and other school leaders to observe teachers’ instruction. In select instances — such as classes with students who have a history of trying to run out of the room, or when the hallway is noisy due to something like a chorus rehearsal — teachers will be permitted to keep doors closed, Miles said.

In a change that will affect students when they are out sick, all lessons will be broadcast in real time. Students can log in virtually to follow along with the lesson, Miles has said, and students may be paired with peers on Zoom for group work.

Demonstrators participate in a “read-in” protest opposing the elimination of some Houston ISD school librarians before a board meeting Aug. 10 at district headquarters in northwest Houston.. (Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Landing)

The library

Libraries became the most contested part of Miles’ overhaul plans this summer.

Beloved by many parents as the coziest part of a school, where students can pull a book off the shelves and discover a love for reading, Miles laid out plans to repurpose libraries at dozens of campuses.

At NES and NES-aligned schools, libraries are being reconfigured into rooms called “team centers,” with rows of desks for students to work quietly. As Miles explains it, team centers will be multipurpose academic spaces used for students to work individually or in pairs.

“You’re going to see (students) annotating and focused and working with their partner,” Miles said. “That’s what a team center is all about.”

But the rooms can also be used as a disciplinary space where teachers can send misbehaving students to learn virtually. Parents and community advocates have pushed back on the policy, arguing it amounts to a remote learning “detention center.”

Although Miles has said books will stay on the shelves and be available on a self-checkout honor system basis, the library staff at NES schools and many NES-aligned schools have been dismissed.

City leaders, including Mayor Sylvester Turner, have blasted the move. They noted the changes only apply to the low- and middle-income schools getting overhauled, which Turner described as an “apartheid situation.”

The hallway and bathroom

Expect less gossip by lockers, handshakes in the hallways and trading Pokemon cards in the bathroom.

Miles has said the campuses he’s transforming will be more regimented, with silent, single-file lines as students travel from one room to the next.

Every school will enforce a strict no-bullying policy, the superintendent has said, so that students shouldn’t have to fear being targeted by peers between class periods.

HISD already prohibited bullying and punished students for it, but Miles has described bullying as one of three priority behaviors his administration will target, alongside disrespecting adults and disrupting lessons. Miles has said most students who break these rules must leave the classroom to work in the team center, though he hasn’t specified the protocol for responding to bullying between classes.

If a student has to use the bathroom, they’ll be required to take a traffic cone. The cone will serve as their hall pass, and they will be required to set it outside the bathroom door to let staff keep track of them.

The staff lounge

Some teachers prepping their lessons and making coffee in the breakroom might be unfamiliar to students this fall.

Educators at all NES schools had to re-apply for their jobs, meaning many schools will be partially staffed by new hires. HISD hasn’t released teacher turnover data for those campuses yet. 

Most teachers at those 28 schools will be paid considerably more than years past, with an average salary of about $85,000. The change is an effort to attract Houston’s top educators to work at historically underperforming schools, the superintendent has said. However, unions have criticized the setup, arguing it forces teachers to choose between higher pay and freedom in the classroom.

“You put your most effective teachers with your least effective kids,” Miles said. “That’s equity.”

In a departure from how teachers are usually paid, teachers of certain subjects at NES schools will earn far more money than others. Special education, English and reading teachers can rake in $80,000 to $97,000, while most elective and early grade teachers will earn $63,000 to $80,000.

Teachers at all 85 NES and NES-aligned campuses also will pocket a $10,000 bonus this year. They will be expected to cover a 75-minute period per week, either before or after the school day, to accommodate the campus opening earlier and closing later. (We’ll get to that in the cafeteria section.)

An information slide detailing Houston ISD’s plans for 85 “New Education System” and “New Education System-Aligned” schools is projected onto a screen as Superintendent Mike Miles delivers a presentation during a board meeting Aug. 3 at the district’s northwest Houston headquarters. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

The principal’s office

According to the superintendent, this is a room that might often be empty. Principals at NES and NES-aligned schools will be expected to spend far less time at a desk than in years past. Instead, they will work more in classrooms to help improve educators’ instruction.

“You’re gonna see principals and (assistant principals) in your classroom all the time coaching like a coach on the football field,” Miles said.

At the same time, fewer students might get sent to the principal’s office. The team centers are designed to replace in-school suspensions, Miles has said. He argues that sending misbehaving students to learn virtually is less disruptive than more traditional alternative measures, such as detention.

Eleven out of 28 NES schools will have a new principal this year. 

The cafeteria

No, we can’t tell you whether the food will be better this year.

What we can say is that the cafeteria will become one of two key locations for students to hang out during free time before the school day begins. All NES and NES-aligned schools will be open from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. for families that need help with childcare outside of traditional school hours. 

Before school starts, students who would like to chat with friends or nap can head to the cafeteria. Those who prefer a quiet place to study or read can head to the team center. Staff will supervise each area.

The playground

With changes in virtually every other aspect of the school day, recess is a domain that will remain unchanged.

Miles backtracked on a plan to restructure recess for elementary schoolers, restoring a full 30-minute block for kindergarten through fifth grade. He originally proposed splitting kindergarten through third grade recess into two 15-minute blocks and cutting fourth and fifth grade recess down to 20 minutes total.

After pushback from parents and community groups, Miles announced Tuesday that all elementary students would have a full, continuous 30 minutes per day for recess.

“We’ve heard from many families that they value unstructured free-play time for their students,” Miles said in a written statement.

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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...