Mariana Rios graduated from Houston ISD’s High School for Law and Justice in May — and she’s glad she finished when she did.
Her former district is now moving forward with a plan she would have hated as a student: lengthening the school year. For Rios, summer break was a precious time.
“It’s when I’m free,” said Rios, now a freshman at the University of Houston-Downtown. “I can stay up, I can play video games, I can do whatever I want without worrying about school, because I feel like that was one of my main stressors.”
As HISD leaders embark on a plan to potentially add two weeks of instruction, they’re already running up against concerns from students, staff and community members, who argue that the school year is hard enough for everyone involved. Meanwhile, some families are rallying behind the notion of more school, calling it a necessary move for getting students caught up on their learning.
The debate will rage on for months after HISD’s state-appointed school board voted Thursday to form a committee to draft a “District of Innovation” plan, which could allow the district to skirt several state regulations. In particular, HISD could use the designation to begin its school year earlier in August, a move that the vast majority of Texas school districts have made. HISD currently begins classes on the fourth Monday in August.
HISD’s state-appointed superintendent, Mike Miles, has repeatedly declined to specify which exemptions from state laws the district plans to seek.
But Miles has said he wants the district to extend its academic calendar from 172 days to at least 180 days, a shift that he argues is necessary given the district’s academic performance. Most large Texas districts offer 172 to 177 class days.
“We need 185 student-teacher contact days of quality instruction to close the achievement gap,” Miles said in late August. “We have 172 in this calendar and that’s not enough.”
Miles’ desire, however, isn’t shared by many HISD families and staff — and districts statewide have been resistant to similar changes.
For some families, the potential extension adds to the strain of the school year and impacts traditional summer plans. Mayra Lemus, whose children attend Cage Elementary School and Project Chrysalis Middle School in Greater Eastwood, said her kids already find school “boring” and “depressing” after Miles’ administration overhauled both campuses this year.
“Adding days, that’s adding more torture,” she said.
Teachers across the district, meanwhile, appear to be widely opposed to working a longer year. HISD educators currently work 187 days, 15 of which are dedicated to training and preparation.
Brad Wray, a physical education teacher at Deady Middle School, found all but a handful of 500-plus educators opposed a potential District of Innovation designation in response to a poll he sent them. Wray serves on HISD’s District Advisory Committee, which must sign off on the innovation plan before it can take effect.
Even when enticed with extra funding to add up to 30 learning days in elementary schools, few Texas school districts have taken the state’s offer in recent years.
State education officials said 77 out of roughly 1,200 districts and charter school networks added days through the initiative in 2021-22, the most recent year with available data. Even among the participating districts, including Aldine and Alief independent school districts, most piloted the extension at a tiny fraction of their schools. (The extra funding wasn’t enough to cover the entire cost of extending the school year, which limited participation in the program.)
Miles does have pockets of community support from families who see benefits from an earlier start date.
Marina Smalley, whose seventh-grade daughter attends Lanier Middle School in Montrose, said the extra days are needed to keep students competitive on state standardized tests. HISD students spend less time in the classroom before the spring exams compared to nearly all other Texas school districts.
Smalley said her daughter hadn’t been taught two units of math before the tests, commonly known as STAAR, at the end of the last school year.
“How’s a child that doesn’t even get all of the curriculum before they take the test even gonna have a chance at achieving anywhere near any of the other districts,” Smalley said. “When we start two or three weeks later than some of the other districts, that’s a problem.”
Nikki Witherspoon, whose kids attend West Briar Middle School and Westside High School on HISD’s west side, felt indifferent about the potential change.
“It’s not really a big difference of days,” she said.
Even if the vast majority of families and employees oppose an extended school year, they might have little recourse.
HISD’s state-appointed school board, which can’t be replaced by HISD voters, has generally supported Miles’ vision for the district. Most board members have not publicly commented on adding instructional days, including when they voted Thursday to form the District of Innovation committee. Two-thirds of board members must support the District of Innovation plan for it to pass.
Meanwhile, HISD officials announced Thursday that they’ve overhauled the District Advisory Committee, adding new members who will dilute the power of Miles’ critics on the body.
The committee is now composed of 60 members, up from about 35 prior to Miles’ arrival in June. HISD’s superintendent previously appointed several District Advisory Committee members, but Miles put 21 people on the committee. The appointed board members also replaced 18 people on the committee, a right given to them under district policy.
Seven people will serve on the group drafting the District of Innovation plan. They include board member Janette Garza Lindner, HISD’s deputy chief of staff, a lecturer at the University of Houston-Downtown, a Texas Southern University professor and an educational consultant.