Houston ISD’s state-appointed school board is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to start the months-long process to become a “District of Innovation,” a move that could potentially allow HISD to extend the school year, among other changes.
The designation, which most Texas districts have sought, would allow HISD to skirt some state laws around school operations. HISD officials didn’t specified which exemptions they want to pursue when asked Tuesday, but district administrators wrote in a board document that the designation would help HISD “modify the academic calendar to ensure all students get the high-quality instruction time they need to read and write on grade level.”
Superintendent Mike Miles mentioned several times last week that the district has too few instructional days in its calendar. He described the state requirement that classes must start on the fourth Monday of August as too restrictive. Many districts have used the District of Innovation status to begin the school year in mid-August.
“We need 185 student-teacher contact days of quality instruction to close the achievement gap,” Miles said last week. “We have 172 in this calendar, and that’s not enough.”
The District of Innovation system gives school leaders the option to forgo various laws related to academic calendars, educator certification, class sizes and teacher benefits. Many laws cannot be sidestepped, including those addressing curriculum, special education, the school board’s power and the state’s academic accountability system.
Out of the roughly 1,200 school districts in Texas, 965 have received status as a District of Innovation, according to the Texas Education Agency. Dallas, Austin and San Antonio independent school districts all are designees.
If the board passes the measure Thursday, state law says HISD must hold a public hearing on whether to develop an innovation plan. Following that hearing, board members need to appoint a committee to craft the plan if they want to continue pursuing the designation.
Once the plan is drawn, it must receive majority approval from a district committee and two-thirds approval of board members to take effect.
Bradley Wray, a District Advisory Committee member and physical education teacher at Deady Middle School, said lengthening the school year is unpopular among teachers he knows. Wray estimated that about 15 educators have reached out to him in the past few days, worried about shortened summer breaks.
“One of the perks of being a teacher, our pay might be terrible, but we have our summers to spend with our families,” Wray said. “I’ve spoken to a lot of teachers that are saying if that’s the direction we’re going in, they’re going to look for an exit plan.”
While HISD officials haven’t confirmed the proposal would result in teachers working a longer year, Miles’ goal of moving from 172 to 185 days of instruction likely would require added work days for educators. Most HISD teachers work 187 days per school year, with 15 days devoted to preparing for the start of classes and mid-year training. Teachers working a 197-day year generally make about $3,000 to $4,000 more annually.
HISD sought District of Innovation status in 2020, but the 31-member District Advisory Committee responsible for voting on the plan shot it down nearly a year into the process. The proposal called for exemptions that would have allowed HISD to start the school year earlier, more easily hire non-certified vocational teachers and give students credit for classes even if they spend less than 90 percent of their time in the classroom.
Opponents of the 2020 proposal, including HISD’s largest teachers union, argued it opened the door to additional changes they opposed, particularly around the hiring of uncertified educators. Critics also said HISD officials provided too little information about the plan, a complaint that district administrators disputed at the time.
Betty Keller, who voted in favor of the 2020 measure as a District Advisory Committee member, said the proposal failed because HISD officials didn’t properly inform the community about what the measure would entail. She heard fears that the district would suddenly be flooded with uncertified educators, even though HISD officials planned to limit the hiring of uncertified teachers to hard-to-staff career and technical education positions.
“I think we just don’t reach out to the community enough. … We let certain people go out and sell (the plan) and market it and it’s not coming from the place it needs to be coming from,” said Keller, a longtime community activist in southwest Houston. “That was the pitfall last time.”
Three members of HISD’s District Advisory Committee said the body has not met since April. The district canceled both meetings scheduled for after June 1, when Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath installed Miles and a new nine-member school board as part of sanctions against HISD, they said.
An HISD spokesperson said Wednesday that Miles and the appointed board will make new selections to the committee in the next several weeks.
Under district policy, each board member gets to choose two members of the committee, while the superintendent selects six committee members. Board policy does not specify a length of service for appointed members.
At least five more members are elected by HISD staff to two-year terms.
The current committee listed on HISD’s website includes several union leaders and community advocates who have been vocal critics of Miles’ plans to make major changes throughout the district.
Wray said he hasn’t received any communication about the future of the committee from the district’s new leadership.
“Does the new board immediately get to wipe those people out and appoint a new set?” Wray wondered. “I don’t know.”
Update, Aug. 6, 4 p.m.: This story has been updated to include comments from HISD’s administration about its plans for the District Advisory Committee.