To Jessica Campos, Pugh Elementary School used to feel like a family. 

The 350-student school that her 10-year-old daughter attends had a tight-knit community with near-constant communication between staff and families, Campos said. One teacher, who had a knack for turning lessons into sing-along songs, even became a family friend.

But that feeling quickly evaporated when new Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles named the Denver Harbor school as one of 28 campuses targeted for immediate overhaul. Miles, appointed as the district’s superintendent in June, replaced Pugh’s principal, required all teachers to reapply for their jobs and ordered several changes to campus operations.

“We know what we had was good,” Campos said. “(Central office staff) are not in our school. They’re not experiencing what our children are experiencing. They’re not in the classroom watching how our teachers are interacting and how they’re delivering the curriculum to our kids.”

Jessica Campos, right, and her daughter, Sofie, pose for a portrait at an HISD community meeting in Houston
Jessica Campos, right, and her daughter, Sofie, pose for a portrait after a community meeting for people to ask questions and raise concerns with Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles on Tuesday at Pugh Elementary School in Houston’s Denver Harbor neighborhood. (Joseph Bui for Houston Landing)

For two-plus decades, HISD has embraced an organizational model commonly known as “decentralization,” a system that gave principals at schools like Pugh lots of authority over spending, staffing and operations at their campus. The model rested on the idea that principals — not central office administrators — best understood what their students needed in a district as diverse as HISD. 

But that approach is changing at dozens of campuses under Miles, who Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath chose to lead HISD as part of state sanctions against the district. 

Eighty-five HISD campuses will see sweeping changes ahead of the next school year, including the standardization of curriculum, staffing models, budgets and schedules. The changes will effectively restructure the role of principals, shifting more decision-making power to Miles’ central administration.

Houston ISD's Pugh Elementary School
Houston ISD’s Pugh Elementary School. (Joseph Bui for Houston Landing)

Nearly 30 of those schools, Pugh included, will undergo more dramatic transformation, with nearly all staff forced to reapply for their jobs and teachers receiving significant pay raises.

Miles said that HISD’s decentralized structure left principals with unnecessary paperwork and responsibilities, distracting them from the important work of coaching teachers. He argued that the system has “locked in” achievement gaps between low-income students of color and their white, more affluent peers. 

All 85 of the schools undergoing changes, known as “New Education System” or “New Education System-aligned” campuses, are located in lower and middle-income Houston neighborhoods. The large majority have scored below district average on state standardized tests.

“Autonomy without accountability has caused lots of issues,” Miles said.

‘Very tough decisions’

Some HISD principals are welcoming the changes. 

Forest Brook Middle School Principal Alicia Lewis said she often had to make “very tough decisions” about resources at her campus on the district’s northeast side. Now, she’s only responsible for spending $100 per student on instruction-related costs.

Giving up some power is a welcome give-and-take for Lewis considering what she says she’s receiving in return: new projectors, new whiteboards, computers for every student and reduced class sizes. 

“When you’re making budgeting decisions on your own, there are times where you have to say, ‘I want this, but I can’t have this,’” Lewis said. “Now we’re saying, ‘We’re in heaven,’ where we are getting some of the things that we could not get before.”

Keith Garcia, the new principal at Pugh Elementary School, introduces himself during a community meeting at Denver Harbor neighborhood in Houston
Keith Garcia, the new principal at Pugh Elementary School, introduces himself during a community meeting Tuesday at the campus in Houston’s Denver Harbor neighborhood. (Joseph Bui for Houston Landing)

But for Campos, any future benefits to Pugh families remain hypothetical, while the downsides are clear to her. She said campus-level decision-making was key to forging a school culture that fit her community, which is mostly made up of Spanish-speaking families.

The previous principal regularly hosted coffee chats with parents where Spanish was the default language, Campos said. Bilingual teachers helped her daughter, who has dyslexia, make more than a grade level’s worth of progress in reading last year, she said.

Now, she’s concerned about the new principal’s lack of Spanish fluency and worries the district may not rehire many of the teachers who she feels have served her daughter well.

A contested structure

HISD leaders instituted a decentralized model in the 1990s, arguing that the approach would raise student achievement and bring more equity to the district. 

The cornerstone of the plan involved allocating millions of dollars to campuses — with schools serving higher-need students getting more funds — and generally allowing principals to spend the money as they saw fit after consulting with teachers and families.

In theory, a school system structure that gives principals final say over staffing, class schedules and other decisions can be equitable, researchers say. The model allows campuses to cater to students’ specific needs and gives extra funding for higher-needs children, such as those with disabilities or who are learning English.

In reality, though, outcomes have been inconsistent across the state’s largest district. And, as far as researchers can tell, the model has not translated into benefits for Houston’s students.

“If we look at trends before and after decentralization came into effect in the way they enacted it here in HISD, we did not see increases in student pass rates or test scores,” said Erin Baumgartner, director of Rice University’s Houston Education Research Consortium, or HERC. The organization conducted extensive research into HISD’s decentralization effort in the late 2010s.

Some principals also reported feeling unprepared to handle spending responsibilities. In a 2018 survey of 142 principals conducted by HERC, over four in 10 principals said they did not receive adequate support from the central office in how to handle their school’s budget.

Tried it twice

In recent years, as frustrations with inequities across the district grew, district administrators tried to take back more control from principals.

Former superintendent Richard Carranza, who led the district from mid-2016 to early 2018, attempted to steer HISD toward a uniform staffing model that would largely ensure every campus had a minimum number of certain positions, such as counselors and librarians. Millard House II, who Miles replaced, also unsuccessfully attempted to pull back on principal authority by proposing a more standardized staffing model.

In both cases, the efforts stalled once they reached HISD’s school board. Carranza faced criticism for failing to gather enough community support for his plans, then abruptly left to become chancellor of New York City’s public schools. House retreated from his proposal following questions from HISD trustees. 

The district’s elected school board has since been ousted by Morath, who appointed a replacement board, as part of the sanctions largely tied to chronically low academic performance at Wheatley High School. 

Elected HISD Trustee Sue Deigaard, who technically remains in her role but holds no official power, said HISD’s decentralization model was flawed because principals were never given clear performance expectations. Still, she wanted House to hold a deeper discussion about the potential benefits of his plan before supporting changes.

“The problem was, that conversation never happened,” Deigaard said. “The number one reason (Carranza and House) didn’t have success is because they tried to do it too fast.” 

Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles answer questions from the media
Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles answer questions from the media after a community meeting Tuesday at Pugh Elementary School in Houston’s Denver Harbor neighborhood. (Joseph Bui for Houston Landing)

A robotic ‘reform’?

The state-appointed school board and Miles are poised to continue toward his plan of overhauling 150 out of HISD’s roughly 270 schools by 2025. If successful, it will eventually split the district into two parts: one in the mold of Miles’ vision and the other under the previous decentralized structure.

“It is possible, I think, and likely, that we will have a set of schools that are in this NES-aligned program, and others who are operating more in a decentralized way, more autonomously,” HISD Board President Audrey Momanaee said. The schools not folded into Miles’ “wholesale systemic reform” will continue to perform well with less district oversight, she said. 

Elizabeth Santos, an elected Houston ISD board member, speaks during a protest
Elizabeth Santos, an elected Houston ISD board member, speaks during a protest outside the district’s northwest Houston headquarters in June. (Houston Landing file photo / Antranik Tavitian)

Elected HISD Trustee Elizabeth Santos has conflicting feelings about the changes. As an HISD student and teacher, she saw the campus-level model lead to inconsistencies between schools, often shortchanging low-income students of color.

At the same time, Santos said she has no trust in the leadership of Miles — who she considers an “outsider” — and would hate to see schools lose their unique character. Each campus, she said, “has its own heartbeat.”

“People that have never had experience in the classroom are dictating what happens in the classroom,” Santos said. “We were here before (the state) took us over … and we’ll be here after they leave.”

After hearing from Miles during a community meeting Tuesday, there’s one image Campos, the Pugh parent, can’t get out of her head. On the projector screen, Miles displayed an image of a robot as he discussed his vision to prepare students for the workforce of the future.

She keeps thinking about that mechanical figure.

“It makes me laugh when he puts that picture up, because to me, that’s what he’s trying to do with the teachers,” Campos said. “You know, scripted curriculum. It’s like you’re turning them into robots.”

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Miranda Dunlap is a reporter covering K-12 schools across the eight-county Greater Houston region. A painfully Midwestern native to Michigan’s capital region, Miranda studied political science pre-law...

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...