This has not been the senior year Jayla London expected — and she wants people to know it.
Jayla, student council president and cheer team captain at Houston ISD’s Yates High School, has seen huge changes to her Greater Third Ward campus under the district’s overhaul launched by Superintendent Mike Miles. Many of her favorite teachers are gone, the campus feels more stressful and her library access is limited.
“Honestly, I just want the public to know what happens inside of the schools,” Jayla said. “It’s common to see what the news is putting out there and what the people who are running the show are putting out there. But, ultimately, I feel like the voice of those actually experiencing it matters more than all of that.”
With two months of classes in the books, the Houston Landing wanted to hear from students experiencing Miles’ dramatic revamp of HISD schools in real time.
Over the past three weeks, the Landing interviewed 15 high schoolers from 14 campuses, asking for their first-hand accounts of the changes. Two students attend a campus covered under Miles’ plan to overhaul 85 schools, including 11 high schools. The other 13 teens go to schools that aren’t part of the program, though they still reported major differences this year.
Together, the students’ insights pull back the curtain on what school looks like under state-appointed leadership.
Every student said their school felt different compared to last year — in most cases, drastically so. Although specifics varied, some common themes emerged: stressed-out teachers, tired students, new operational policies and more regimented lessons.
Miles, who was appointed as HISD’s superintendent by Texas Commissioner Mike Morath in June, has said the changes are needed to boost student learning after more than a decade of mostly stagnant test scores, with wide gaps along lines of race and income.
The students, however, aren’t impressed. Asked to rate the changes using a letter grade, the students produced an average score of C, with grades ranging from A- to F. Ultimately, they offered mixed reviews about a key question: Are students learning more this school year?
Here’s what the students told us, in their own words. Their responses were lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Teachers on edge
Nearly every student said their teachers appear visibly stressed out this year. The weariness stems, in part, from regular classroom visits by school and district administrators, who have been directed by Miles to spend more time coaching teachers on instruction. HISD teachers also have reported that they are required to time lessons and solicit responses from students roughly every four minutes, in accordance with new directions from district headquarters.
Several students said educators seem anxious when observers visit, sometimes causing them to switch up teaching styles. Some students said their teachers explicitly admitted to them that the district-wide changes this school year have taken a toll, leading to bitter sentiments among staff.
Alexa Ramos, senior, High School for Law and Justice: Most of the things that (teachers) do in their classrooms, it very much seems like it’s not something that they want to do. They’re like, ‘Oh, the administrators told us to do this.’ It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’ve been wanting to do this.’
Tegann Franco, senior, Challenge Early College High School: Everything has to be timed and (lessons) all have to have a certain structure to them. That structure is incredibly draining for teachers and you can see that on them. At this point in the school year, typically they aren’t so tired, they aren’t so run down. A lot of teachers are starting to get frustrated easier with students and lose their patience easier with students.
Anabel Precht, junior, Carnegie Vanguard High School: There’s always some kind of administrator in the classroom who’s in the corner jotting down notes about the teacher. It kind of feels like they’re playing a part and, I don’t know, like we’re kind of putting on an act for the administrator. … There was a time where the teacher completely switched up what they were doing because an administrator walked in. We were just watching a video … and she pauses it and she’s like, ‘OK, write down blah, blah, blah, blah.’ Just a random question. It wasn’t really relevant to what we were doing. It was just to show the administrators that we’re actually working.
Less student joy
Low morale has extended to students, the high schoolers said.
Classes have begun to blur together because the lessons adhere to a common formula of PowerPoint slides and daily quizzes, students said. And classes that once were based around projects have introduced more assignments and tests. Miles has said the instructional approach is a proven method of improving literacy and other skills, pointing to increases in test scores at campuses he previously ran.
Several students also reported that the few comforts they used to be afforded — such as wearing earbuds during the time between classes or taking bathroom breaks during class — have been taken away.
Khalil Daniels, junior, Sharpstown High School: It feels like every single class period is the same because they all follow the exact same structure, like with the timers and with the learning objectives on the board and the things you have to do. It’s all the same structure, which is OK for some students, but not everyone learns like that. For me, I have ADHD, so doing the same thing every single class period, it just starts to drive me crazy and there’s a point where I can’t focus anymore.
Comfort Azagidi, senior, Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts: It just feels kind of ‘factory’ almost, that’s the only way I can explain it. My theater classes went from being like, ‘Oh, I’m in my theater classes. I’m gonna go work on my art,’ to more like, ‘Oh, I have a theater assignment. I need to get this theater assignment in.’ It feels very robotic and mechanical.
Anh Ton, senior, Chavez High School: A lot of kids feel like, ‘Yeah, maybe I should transfer. Maybe I should do this.’ It’s just sad to hear because I really liked going to school before (the changes this year).
The 85 campuses overhauled under Miles’ plan saw drastic staff turnover and the addition of dozens of new roles this year. In particular, those schools have significantly more positions dedicated to special education and learning support.
At the same time, several students at schools that are not part of the targeted overhaul said they also have seen large staffing shake-ups, with beloved teachers leaving due to uncertainties related to the transformation of HISD. The new faces mean some older students have had to begin the process anew of forming bonds with the adults in their schools.
Jayla London, senior, Yates High School: I do appreciate the principal that we have now, she’s a really good principal. But as far as the staff as a whole, completely different. There’s a lot of people that I don’t know the names of. Yates kind of felt like a family at first. I knew everyone, everyone knew me. But now it’s just like, there’s a lot of new people.
Carlos Alvarado, senior, Furr High School: They filled our school up with teachers, like so many. … This year, we had to make supply closets into classrooms because of how many teachers we have hired, and it sucks. … My third-period class, which is also my eighth-period class, is a floating classroom. So, we go to the third floor every day, and it’s not supposed to be like that. We’re supposed to have a permanent classroom, be able to learn in there and not worry about being kicked out.
HISD spokesperson Jose Irizarry acknowledged there is a classroom at Furr this year that previously was used for storage space, but it is “not a supply closet.” The room has at least 16 desks and chairs, according to photos provided by Irizarry.
Tegann Franco, senior, Challenge Early College High School: We lost a lot of good teachers due to the state takeover. … Some of the teachers who have been there for decades just left because they couldn’t see themselves working in HISD any longer. … That has greatly affected our school because our teachers were the largest part of our culture.
Mixed reviews on learning
Most high schoolers reported they’re learning less or equal to what they were learning last year, but a handful did feel the new policies have given them and their peers an academic boost.
Miles has said he made the changes because dozens of schools were not producing the academic results needed for students. Academic indicators, such as standardized test scores, eventually will shed light on whether the new methods turn results around.
Mia Duran, senior, East Early College High School: I remember hearing … all these policies, especially ones centered in classrooms, it was to lower the amount of dropouts and stuff like that. And I was just thinking, ‘Having to do this, it doesn’t make me want to be in school more.’ So, I don’t know how that’s supposed to work out. I don’t think these policies are making me learn anymore. In normal class, I learned because I also enjoyed being in class. With all these policies, you’re more on your toes.
Jedi Calvin, senior, Mickey Leland College Preparatory Academy for Young Men: I see it as we’re learning more (than) we were from last year. More people care, so basically the teacher’s trying to make sure they’re passing. … Some of these students last year weren’t paying attention in math, but this year they’re mostly passing because most of the kids got 90s and 80s. We just took a test and most of the kids she was expecting to fail actually passed. I think they have a better handle on learning this year than last year.
Sandra Martinez, senior, Lamar High School: Now, there’s more work. Before our teachers would just get into the lesson, but now you have to do a ‘Do Now,’ there’s Exit Tickets, there’s just more within that limited time period. … But I feel like it’s still the same (amount that I’m learning).
Two of the 15 interviewed attend schools that implemented Miles’ most controversial policy: removing library staff and repurposing parts of the library into spaces where students can be sent for discipline.
Miles has insisted that students still can check out books on an “honor system,” dismissing claims to the contrary as misinformation. The two high schoolers, however, said access is more limited.
Jayla, the Yates senior, said books now are stored in a side room that sometimes is gated off. She said school policy now allows students to access books on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, with the room off limits Thursday and Friday. But after school on a recent Monday, she found the space locked up. And Carlos, the Furr senior, said he occasionally takes books home, but many of his peers aren’t aware they can do that.
Jayla London, senior, Yates High School: There’s books, but we aren’t allowed to touch them, basically. … They didn’t throw away everything that was in the library, but there’s a little gate here similar to what you’ll see in a mall if a certain store is closed down, and that’s where all the books are really housed.
In response to Jayla’s description, HISD said it would make sure all students have access to the library every day school is open.
Carlos Alvarado, senior, Furr High School: I was (at school) Aug. 1 for a freshman tour, so I was there pretty early. That day, they were really just giving (the books) away. Cover books, hard books, really big books, they were just giving them away. They haven’t had another chance to give them away yet, so what I’ve been doing is I just take one or two every one or two weeks. So, I’m able to just grab one and go.
Miles has implemented a suite of smaller rules that impact students’ day-to-day routines. They include a crackdown on student cellphone use, strict limits on tardiness and a requirement that teachers keep classroom doors open.
They also include other changes that have left students puzzled. Several students said their teachers no longer are allowed to play videos more than roughly five minutes long, repeatedly pausing the playback and asking questions if they want to show something longer than the allotted limit. Several others relayed that their teachers no longer can turn off the lights, even when doing so would help students read PowerPoint slides.
Carlos Alvarado, senior, Furr High School: Instead of being able to do a full-blown video where we can get the information, (teachers) have to stop it, ask questions and then continue and keep doing it over and over, which really distracts the whole point of watching the video.
Annabeth Golden, junior, Houston Academy for International Studies: We’re not allowed to turn off lights to look at a video or anything like that. And there are very specific rules that don’t necessarily work for every type of class structure, which has been frustrating. In one of my classes, we’re doing a service learning capstone, so the entire semester we’re just working on one project. … My teacher is honestly just trying her best to do things like always have a timer up on the board for tasks.
Anabel Precht, junior, Carnegie Vanguard High School: All of the classroom doors in the school have to be open, and it’s really distracting because one class will be taking a test and the class across the hall will be listening to a lecture and you can hear the lecture while you’re taking the test. It’s horrible, because you can’t focus.
Asher Lehrer-Small covers education for the Landing and would love to hear your tips, questions and story ideas about Houston ISD. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.