There’s still six weeks until class is back in session at Houston ISD, but teachers and parents already have first-day jitters.

They’re anxious, frustrated, excited and confused about the new regime led by Superintendent Mike Miles, who is overhauling 85 campuses in low and middle-income Houston neighborhoods this summer. Miles assumed the role and announced his plans in early June, when Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath appointed him to the position as part of state sanctions against HISD.

The swift pace of change leaves parents and educators who — for better or worse — had come to know what to expect from their schools suddenly on unsteady ground.

The Houston Landing spoke with several of them — parents at schools being overhauled, the mother of a child with special needs, an old hand in HISD’s teaching ranks — in the past week to gauge their temperature on the new superintendent’s plans. Here’s how they’re feeling headed into August.

Maribel Ramirez, parent, Berry Elementary School

Maribel Ramirez listens to Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles during a community meeting
Maribel Ramirez listens to Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles during a community meeting July 11 at Pugh Elementary School in Houston;s Denver Harbor neighborhood. (Joseph Bui for Houston Landing)

Maribel Ramirez said it was “very concerning” to see her daughter’s school on the list of 28 “New Education System” campuses targeted for the most immediate and drastic changes by Miles’ administration. 

Nearly all employees at those schools have had to reapply for their jobs, with those hired back ultimately receiving significant pay raises. Each campus also will see changes to curriculum, daily schedules and staffing models, among other updates. (Another 57 schools are voluntarily employing a pared-down version of the approach.)  

To Ramirez, it was all happening too quickly.

While helping out at Berry’s summer school and interacting with her daughter’s teachers in recent weeks, Ramirez said the campus on the district’s north side “just wasn’t the same happy place” she was used to.

Ramirez tried to learn more about Miles’ proposals by going to a board meeting in June, but she described it as “havoc,” with angry attendees keeping board members from speaking. She said she understood their anger, but it came at the cost of information she was trying to collect about plans for her daughter’s school.

After attending Miles’ first community meeting, held in late June at Forest Brook Middle School, Ramirez decided his plans seemed “well-intended.” But her hesitancy persists when it comes to the future of bilingual and magnet programs — a topic she remains largely confused about.

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    “For the most part, (Miles) was kind of just saying, ‘We’ll accommodate those programs.’ He never said how it’s gonna happen or what is gonna happen,” Ramirez said. “So to think that those programs would be gone, or that it would be an option for them to be gone, I mean, what are we gonna do with our kids? Because these are the types of classes that we’re used to.”

    Now, Ramirez said she’s reached a level of acceptance about Miles’ plan, but she continues to attend community meetings to have her lingering concerns heard. 

    “We’d rather work with (Miles and the board) and try to be on the same page. … Maybe that can affect their decision-making and how they go about things,” Ramirez said. “We’ve accepted it already. We’re just trying to stay hopeful.” 

    Anna Chuter, parent, Roosevelt Elementary School

    Anna Chuter poses for a portrait at her home
    Anna Chuter poses for a portrait at her home Monday in Houston’s Northside neighborhood. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

    Fourth grade will be an important year for Anna Chuter’s 8-year-old son, who has autism. In preparation for the transition to middle school, the family and school agreed he would spend three 90-minute periods each day in general education — one more than last year — and do away with his one-on-one aide.

    But the Northside mother has begun to worry those plans could lead her son getting banished from the classroom if Roosevelt enacts a policy Miles is instituting at some other schools getting overhauled.

    Kids who disrespect adults or bully peers at those campuses will be temporarily sent to separate classrooms for remote learning, Miles has said. While the superintendent calls those secondary rooms “Team Centers,” they have been commonly referred to as “Zoom rooms” — and Chuter calls them “school jails.” 

    Online learning during the pandemic was “horrible” for her son, Chuter said. She had to quit her job as a receptionist at a day care to support him through behavior issues, such as screaming at the computer.

    Chuter “absolutely” does not believe Miles’ contention that the Team Centers will allow children like her son to take a quick break and calm down when they become agitated in class. If anything, she thinks putting him in a remote instruction setting when he misbehaves will rile him up further.

    “I think it’s more of a punishment,” she said. If her son gets sent to one, she thinks “he would probably shut down, and because of his autism, he might hide underneath the desk.”

    Roosevelt’s principal opted against voluntarily making the full suite of changes proposed by the superintendent, including the disciplinary rooms. Still, Chuter fears the campus will eventually institute part of the central office’s new model, including the Team Centers. The district did not respond to a request to confirm whether that was the case.

    In response to parent concerns, Miles said schools will fully accommodate special education students’ educational plans, even if they are sent to separate rooms.

    That does not reassure Chuter. The policy, set to be implemented at schools that predominantly cater to low-income students of color, is overly punitive, she believes.

    “Parents in the more affluent neighborhoods would have a fit if their children were thrown in these school jails,” she said.

    Crystal Evans, English teacher, Sugar Grove Academy

    Crystal Evans poses for a photo at a Houston ISD family engagement event
    Crystal Evans poses for a photo at a Houston ISD family engagement event Thursday at Marshall Middle School in Houston’s Northside Village neighborhood. (Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Landing)

    For two weeks this summer, Crystal Evans called HISD’s central office every day to find out what her salary would be next year. Not once did she get the information she wanted.

    “When I call, they say, ‘Ma’am, we do not have the answer straight,’” Evans said last week. “They say, ‘Email this email.’ No one responds.”

    In 2020, after a decade teaching in HISD, Evans resigned to home-school her daughter during the pandemic. When she rejoined the workforce this summer, she planned to seek out a job in a neighboring district. She had eight other job offers, she said, but when Miles announced dramatically increased pay at 28 HISD campuses, it lured her back.

    For several weeks, she had an offer letter in hand to work at Sugar Grove in Sharpstown, one of the campuses seeing big salary bumps. But she didn’t have specifics about her salary. 

    HISD teachers had until Friday to resign from the district without penalty, and many of Evans’ colleagues had to make tough decisions without full information about their compensation, she said. Salaries for some positions at middle schools targeted for overhaul by the district fluctuated by $25,000 per position. A seventh-grade reading teacher, for example, could expect to earn $86,000 to $111,000.

    “There’s a lot of hearsay right now,” Evans said at a Thursday community meeting with the superintendent. “Everyone’s confused.”

    When confronted with questions about the salary scale at that meeting, Miles said he was “not happy” about the fuzzy messaging. 

    “If they don’t have a contract with a number on it, they should get that immediately,” Miles said.

    Indeed, Evans got a phone call from the district confirming her pay Friday and received her contract Saturday. The salary is “drastically higher” than her previous one, she said.

    “This pay increase has added a burst of energy for my upcoming year,” Evans said. “Getting paid adequately for such an important job is fair.”

    Lydia Guerrero, preschool teacher, Scroggins Elementary School

    Lydia Guerrero, left, and Kathy Alvarez pose for a portrait
    Lydia Guerrero, left, and Kathy Alvarez pose for a portrait during a community meeting June 11 at Pugh Elementary School in Houston’s Denver Harbor neighborhood. (Joseph Bui for Houston Landing)

    Lydia Guerrero’s 40 years of working in HISD, including two decades as an elementary school principal, have convinced her that Houston schools are overdue for a change.

    “I’ve seen the downfall” of education in the city, she said. State test scores show half of HISD students performed at grade level in reading and just shy of 40 percent tested at grade level in math in the 2021-22 school year, the most recent time period with available data. Wide gaps persist along lines of race and income.

    That’s why Guerrero, who felt called to return to the classroom during last year’s teacher shortage, supports the plans Miles is advancing to shake up 85 campuses. Scroggins, located in the Denver Harbor neighborhood, is one of 28 schools targeted for the biggest changes. 

    “I’m for it,” the veteran educator said. “What I’m looking at is the future.”

    A cornerstone of the new superintendent’s plan, dubbed “Destination 2035,” is preparing students for a workforce that’s increasingly defined by automation and artificial intelligence. Miles has said he plans to introduce students to computer science coursework and lessons on how the brain works in the early grades.

    Guerrero hopes, in time, that exposure to those subjects will make a difference in families’ pocketbooks. Over years, as students start to see results, “we’ll see the incomes go up,” Guerrero said.

    Susana Hernandez, parent, Pugh Elementary School

    Susana Hernandez and her daughter, Alyssa Hernandez, 3, listen to Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles
    Susana Hernandez and her daughter, Alyssa Hernandez, 3, listen to Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles during a community meeting June 11 at Pugh Elementary School in Houston’s Denver Harbor neighborhood. (Joseph Bui for Houston Landing)

    Susana Hernandez doesn’t want to “start all over again.” 

    The parent of two Pugh students recognizes that the campus “wasn’t perfect,” even with an A grade under the state’s academic accountability system. But six weeks after the state’s takeover of the district, she still wonders: “Why was this school not able to have a choice?”

    Hernandez wants clarity about the status of teachers at the campus after they were forced to reapply for their jobs. She’s heard rumors that just two teachers are returning. She’s also heard none of them are. 

    “We had good teachers. Like, good teachers,” Hernandez said. “They cared about the students. If anything was going on, they would always give me a call, whether it was with the (class content), whether it was having problems with the kids, anything. They would always give me a call.”

    Now, she worries those relationships won’t be the same if a new teaching staff is brought in. 

    Hernandez attended a family event Miles held at the campus on June 11 in hopes of gathering some answers. She wanted to know how the dual language program will look at the Denver Harbor campus, where 96 percent of students are Hispanic. A bilingual mother, it’s important to her that her children are fluent in Spanish and English, she said. 

    Miles has said he will “try to preserve” the dual language model, under which students spend at least 50 percent of daily instruction in a non-English language. But he’s said his first priority is ensuring students are reading proficiently in English before “supplementing” in Spanish. 

    Miles also installed Keith Garcia as Pugh’s new principal last month, another source of uncertainty for Hernandez, who was fond of the school’s former principal. 

    Hernandez said she isn’t opposed to change. But not knowing the interests and intentions of her child’s new teachers and principal is nerve-wracking. 

    “For me, this is starting all new,” Hernandez said. “Change is good, I’m not gonna lie. But hopefully this principal is not trying to take away the good things, you know? And if it’s change, it’s change for the better.”

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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...