With her first-grader floundering at Houston ISD’s Neff Early Learning Center in 2021, Myhd Montinez started losing faith in educators’ ability to get her son, who has autism, back on track.

Montinez watched as her 6 year old would shut down, staring into space, as instructors repeatedly asked him to do things he couldn’t, like answer quiz questions or speak to the class. She grew frustrated with gaps in school officials’ knowledge about special education policy, such as district rules requiring specialized instruction for certain young students with disabilities.

“It was years of just him not making progress,” Montinez said. “He felt extremely unsupported. Every day, he would refuse to go to school.”

Two years later, many of HISD’s well-documented special education problems impacting families like the Montinezes remain unresolved — even after promises of change and the state’s appointment of officials responsible for helping fix the issues, new documents obtained by the Houston Landing show.

Monthly reports written by the state-appointed officials, known as conservators, reveal that HISD is off-track on meeting several key conservator goals for improving special education in the district. The records show HISD is still falling short on holding timely meetings with families to plan out legally mandated services, implementing a centralized system for documenting support given to students and promptly addressing parent complaints.

The records underscore the difficulty of overhauling HISD’s special education department, which has repeatedly failed to adequately identify, test and serve students with disabilities, according to multiple outside reviews published over the past 15 years. The reports also call into question the efficacy of conservators who have been monitoring HISD’s special education department since December 2020 — and billed the district for about $260,000 in the process.

A spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency, which appointed the conservators, said HISD has seen “drastic improvement” in special education over the last two and a half years. All evaluations to determine if a student qualifies for special education services are now completed on time, up from 80 percent prior to the conservators’ appointment.

“Systemic changes to the degree necessary in Houston ISD do take time,” the spokesperson said in an email.

But David DeMatthews, an associate professor of education at the University of Texas at Austin and former special education administrator for District of Columbia Public Schools, said the conservators’ reports tell a story of continued “systemic failure” in HISD’s service of students with disabilities. DeMatthews reviewed the monthly conservator reports at the Landing’s request.

The conservators, who have the power to direct changes in the district, should have been able to make more progress, DeMatthews argued. Meanwhile, many of HISD’s problems trace back to an illegal, state-imposed cap on the percentage of students included in special education in the 2010s, he said.

“The state, the conservator, everybody is to blame,” Matthews said. 

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has said HISD must get into compliance with state and federal special education law before the district’s elected board, which he replaced in June, can regain control over the district.

HISD’s new state-appointed superintendent, Mike Miles, said in July that he was planning to finalize a “SPED Action Plan” by Sept. 1, including key benchmarks for improving special education services. However, no such document has yet been released. Miles said the school board will focus on special education in October.

Seeing ‘incremental steps’

Following more than a decade of blistering reports detailing HISD’s inadequate delivery of special education services, state officials launched their own inquiry in 2019. TEA investigators concluded that “significant, systemic and widespread” issues persisted following multiple warnings. 

Morath ultimately appointed two conservators, special education consultants Fred Shafer and Molly Cordeau, to oversee changes to HISD’s operations. (Katherine Seals, a retired special education administrator, later replaced Shafer.)

Through a public records request, the Houston Landing obtained dozens of reports that the conservators submitted to HISD and state leadership, the latest of which were completed in early July. The documents tell a story of uneven progress toward needed fixes in a system that served over 17,500 HISD students last year.

In recent months, the conservators documented how HISD was off track on meeting several goals toward the end of 2022-23:

  • About 370 out of 4,120, or 9 percent, of required meetings were not held within 30 days of a child’s initial evaluation for a disability. The conservator’s goal for the district was 100 percent compliance.
  • A push to implement new practices ensuring special education students do not get segregated away from their peers has stalled, as HISD officials waited to receive a price estimate from the vendor for training and implementation services.
  • About 63 percent of special-education complaints from elementary school parents and 58 percent of complaints from middle and high school parents submitted through an online portal were addressed in five days, falling short of an 86 percent internal goal.
  • Staff were trained in how to document changes to students’ specialized learning plans, but did not fully implement the new methods.

On other metrics, the conservators noted improvements.

For example, schools completed all 4,100 initial evaluations for students with disabilities on time, according to the reports. Elementary schools also hit a target of 90 percent participation in certain special education meetings, while the district slightly exceeded its goal of centrally documenting the progress that 84 percent of special education students were making in their individual learning plans. 

The mixed results mirrored the experience of some HISD parents who have had frustrations with the district’s performance in recent years, but also noted some gradual progress.

Jane Friou, who co-founded the Houston Special Education Parent Association, said she was glad — and surprised — to see HISD had reached 100 percent compliance on initial evaluations for special education students.

“That’s a huge win,” said Friou, the mother of a child with a disability at Lamar High School. “But again, that’s step one of 100 steps in special education. It really is just the entry point for people to get services.”

Meghan Guion, the parent of a special education student at Tanglewood Middle School, said she has seen modest progress over the past several years. She spent several years as a special education teacher in HISD before becoming an advocate for special education parents, helping dozens of families navigate the district’s special education system.

“They’re quicker to evaluate as opposed to stretching it out,” Guion said. “I’m not saying it’s great yet. However, I’m saying I’ve seen incremental steps.”

Feeling pushed out

In his first months as superintendent, Miles has outlined in broad strokes his strategy for improving special education. The plan mostly hinges on raising some special education teachers’ pay, adding more aides to classrooms and tying 20 percent of principal evaluations to special education-related results — steps he says are unprecedented in HISD.

Students who are entitled to accommodations will continue to receive them, Miles has said.

“I’ve been in lots and lots of special education classrooms. We should not treat them like they’re broken,” Miles said. “We should handle the disability. We should go into the classroom, and we should observe the teaching and the instruction.”

Still, Miles’ no-excuses approach to learning has many parents of students with disabilities on edge. 

Fast-paced instruction is a cornerstone of the teaching model in the 85 schools Miles is immediately overhauling this year. Teachers are expected to solicit a response from students about once every four minutes, and administrators pop in and out of the classroom to coach educators on their instruction.

During a school board meeting last week, appointed board member Rolando Martinez said parent constituents told him the many administrators frequently walking in and out of classrooms was distracting to students with disabilities. Miles countered that the teacher coaching will raise the quality of special education instruction. 

Montinez, the former Neff parent, worries the changes will spell trouble for students who process slowly or get distracted easily. Her son now attends a private school on the district’s dime after HISD determined it could not adequately meet his needs.

Montinez said she knows disability law calls for keeping special education students in general education classes whenever possible, and she fears doing so will be tougher under Miles’ new classroom expectations.

“I feel like for a teacher to succeed in (Miles’) school, they cannot have a child with a disability,” Montinez said. “I feel like our kids are getting pushed out of general curriculum classrooms and are getting pushed towards a less inclusive environment.”

The first two weeks of school have not allayed the fears of some special education families. 

Anna Luzuriaga, who has a child with dyslexia at Hogg Middle School, said she fears there aren’t ample checks and balances to ensure Miles’ administration remains accountable to special education families like her own.

“We’ve been going towards the positive, getting services to kids,” Luzuriaga said. “I don’t want to lose that.”

Reach out to me at asher@houstonlanding.org with your questions, tips and thoughts on Houston schools.

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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...