For three months, Houston ISD’s new, state-appointed superintendent, Mike Miles, repeatedly promised huge changes at dozens of schools.

But nobody knew exactly what it would look like in practice — until this week. 

Over the past few days, as thousands of HISD students returned to classrooms in dramatically different schools, the Houston Landing toured four campuses alongside Miles and members of his administrative team. As part of the access, a photographer took some of the first news media photos allowed at the 28 schools undergoing the most significant changes.

The visits, which spanned five-plus hours, pulled back the curtain on many of the most contentious new policies and practices at the overhauled campuses. Reporters and a photographer saw teachers in action who were required to apply for their jobs, observed libraries operating without librarians and watched rigid classroom instruction.

Above all, the Landing saw ruthless classroom efficiency with near-constant student engagement. Whether smiles were forced or genuine — Miles accompanied the Landing every step of the way — students and staff betrayed few visible signs of discontent.

After popping into dozens of classes at the campuses — Ashford Elementary School, Fleming and McReynolds middle schools, and Sugar Grove Academy — here are eight things that stood out the most.

Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles observes a classroom Thursday at Sugar Grove Academy in Houston’s Sharpstown neighborhood. (Antranik Tavitian/ Houston Landing)

1. Regimented — but not sterile — classrooms

Classrooms in overhauled schools had several unifying elements: 

  • A one-sentence learning objective printed on the board.
  • Posted instructions for an activity for students to complete that demonstrates their learning.
  • Plastic bins filled with heaps of stapled worksheets.
  • Desks clumped into pairs of two, each prepped with whiteboards, highlighters, pencils, dry-erase markers and a large paper notecard.

At the front of the classroom, teachers repeatedly cued students to participate in the lesson. 

On Tuesday at Fleming, a sixth grade math teacher instructed his students to find pairs of numbers that multiply to 30. He clicked a button on his laptop and a one-minute timer began ticking down at the corner of his projected PowerPoint slide. Students quietly scribbled with their pencils.

When the timer sounded, the teacher told his students it was time for a “whiparound” share. It was only the second day of school, but the students knew to stand up, volunteer their answer when called on and sit back down when a peer provided the same answer they prepared. Together, the class offered answers to the question: six and five multiply to 30, so do three and 10, two and 15.

The whiparound is one of eight “multiple response strategies” teachers at overhauled schools are instructed to use repeatedly throughout their lessons. Others include asking students to write responses to questions on a dry-erase board or talk with their partner and then share their answers with the class. 

Each class period includes repeated loops of brief instruction, followed by real-time student responses, running like clockwork thanks to the ticking timers. Teachers at overhauled schools are expected to incorporate a student response strategy at least once every four minutes. The rapid-fire, high-volume strategy ensures students stay engaged in the lessons and cement their learning, Miles said.

Although the instruction adhered to a strict blueprint, the physical classroom spaces did not. 

Teachers were given general guidelines for what’s not allowed: no clutter, no couches, no collection of plants, no outside lighting fixtures, Miles said. As a result: no comfy reading nooks or makeshift classroom libraries. 

Color and a sense of personality are still allowed. Each classroom had vibrant bulletin boards, some trimmed with floral, marble or neon patterns. One teacher covered their entire back wall in black and gold construction paper. Some teachers hung their own posters. 

But for the most part, signs instructing students on classroom policies filled the walls.

2. Libraries and classrooms transformed into ‘team centers’

Miles’ most contentious policy — converting some sections of libraries into discipline spaces and eliminating librarian positions — was in full operation. Library shelves bumped back against the wall, while a sea of desks filled the majority of rooms now known as “team centers.” Books were still on library shelves in the four schools, and any bare shelves were empty before the transition, staff noted. 

Many kids used the spaces for independent study and reading before the first period bell, principals said. McReynolds Principal Chastity Caesar said teaching assistants were being trained to check books out to students. 

But that’s where the semblance of a library ended. 

Students who misbehaved in class could be sent to the repurposed libraries for a cool-down until the end of the period. However, administrators said few, if any, students had needed such discipline in the first week. During the four visits, the discipline areas sat empty. 

Webcams in each classroom still captured a broadcast of the lesson in real time, in case students were sent out of class to watch from a team center or at home sick.

Libraries were just one of several team centers in each school. For two subjects — math and English — the last 35 minutes of class was devoted to independent work in the team centers for students who showed they had mastered the day’s material.

The spaces were housed in large classrooms, with at least one room per grade level. After the first 55 minutes of the period, students from several classrooms would quietly file into the room with packets in hand to silently begin accelerated work.

3. Teachers aren’t the only ones teaching

As teachers delivered lessons from the front of the room, assistants or “teacher apprentices” snaked through the rows of desks, keeping students on track. 

At Sugar Grove, an apprentice’s quick raise of eyebrows and shake of the head redirected a student’s wandering eyes back to their worksheet. When a student started to fall behind in pace, the apprentice was already at his desk, pointing to the question he needed to work on. 

At Ashford — a campus that opted into a pared-down version of Miles’ plans — a teacher apprentice led a class because the permanent teacher was out sick. That didn’t surprise Miles, who said it’s “exactly how a teacher apprentices are supposed to work.” Some critics of Miles’ plans have expressed concern that more uncertified, non-degreed teachers will end up leading classrooms under this model. 

Principals also roamed the hallways and popped into classrooms, ready to jump into lessons at any moment. They hovered over students’ desks, observed teachers from the sidelines and interjected or counseled teachers when they spotted something not up to par.

Ashford Principal Deshaun Harris used a “mobile office,” a wheeled cart that he rolls from one room to the next, as he observed teachers. During a math class, he interrupted the lesson to ask questions of students, as a teacher would. At McReynolds, an assistant principal walked into the back of one classroom, tapped a whiteboard with “MRS turn + talk” — indicating to the teacher it was past time to incorporate one of the multiple response strategies — and quickly strode out.

4. Students should have less homework

Miles said the drill-heavy classroom model means less homework for students. Each lesson is designed to give students multiple chances to answer questions related to the day’s topic. It’s a high-repetition strategy designed to give students as many “at-bats” as possible and reinforce their learning, Miles said.

Each teacher gets to decide whether to assign homework, and if so, how much. That’s true of all schools, districtwide. But Miles expects that students at overhauled schools will have far less evening assignments than their peers at other campuses.

“The kids work hard during the day. There’s not a lot of downtime,” Miles said. “Because the model is so intense, we don’t feel like the kids need (much homework).”

A student works on classwork in a “team center” during class Thursday at Sugar Grove Academy in Houston’s Sharpstown neighborhood. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

5. No time for tomfoolery

Students usually spend the first few days of school getting to know their classmates, discussing their summer break and learning fun facts about their teacher. But not this year: it was straight down to business on Day One. Teachers began delivering curriculum upon the first bell.

At Sugar Grove, traffic cones were a common sight. They dotted the middle of the hallway, clearly defining which side students should walk on. When a student went to the bathroom, they carried a traffic cone with them as a hall pass. A sign on the hallway wall marked where students are required to leave the cones outside the bathroom.  

Students, for the most part, were quiet. Classes were hushed as teachers instructed, save for the sound of markers squeaking on whiteboards. No students lingered in the hallways outside of passing time. And in the team centers, students worked independently in pure silence. 

Much of this order could be attributed to staff, who were consistently keeping students in check. At Sugar Grove, an apprentice heard a student tapping their feet during a classroom-wide exercise and swiftly put an end to it. 

But during times when students were permitted and instructed to make some noise, they did so with enthusiasm. A chorus of voices filled rooms when students were prompted to recite answers out loud together. During “turn and talk” periods of a lesson, students were eager to  socialize with their desk buddy. But there’s no horsing around, largely because there’s seemingly no time for it. 

“Whenever we ‘pair and share,’ it’s way more lively and they’re way more engaged,” Miles said. “When kids get to do the work, it’s always better.”

Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles talks with his administrative team after a tour of various schools Thursday at the district’s northwest Houston headquarters. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

6. Many unfamiliar faces

At least two schools — McReynolds and Sugar Grove — saw extensive staff turnover from last year to this one, Miles said. Both campuses have fresh principals. Every teacher at McReynolds is new to the campus, while about half are new at Sugar Grove.

Teachers at the 28 schools Miles targeted for the biggest overhaul were required to re-apply for their jobs over the summer. District officials haven’t released data yet on how many unfamiliar faces are filling those campuses. (Fleming officials did not indicate how many teachers were replaced, while Ashford is not among the 28 campuses.)

Research shows high turnover is typically associated with negative impacts on student learning, but Miles has argued the move was necessary to get high-quality teachers in front of the students who need it most. Core subject teachers working in third through 12th grades at overhauled schools will make $73,000 to $97,000 per year, typically about $10,000 to $30,000 more than they would earn elsewhere in the district.

7. Classrooms sit half-empty

Out of dozens of classrooms visited by the Landing, most had one or more desks sitting empty. In many rooms, several rows were completely unoccupied.

Student enrollment and attendance typically fluctuates in the first several weeks of school, so the number of students in each classroom might change. But in the first week, many instructors in overhauled schools were teaching to half-empty classrooms. 

McReynolds had a Tuesday enrollment of 313 students, far below the 498 it was scheduled for. Sugar Grove picked up roughly 100 new students between Monday and Thursday, but many classrooms weren’t full on a campus that typically operates at about three-quarters capacity.

When asked during a press conference Monday if he was concerned about half-empty classrooms, Miles did not give a direct answer. He did note that about 4,000 students enrolled between the Friday before classes started and the first day of school.

“We’re gonna grow that (enrollment) number as kids come back from summer or from travel or whatever. And then the number fluctuates during the year,” Miles said.

Superintendent Mike Miles gives his closing observations to staff at the end of a tour Thursday of Sugar Grove Academy in Houston’s Sharpstown neighborhood. (Antranik Tavitian/ Houston Landing)

8. No straying from Miles’ vision

As Miles walks across campuses operating under his newly implemented model, anything that doesn’t adhere to his vision sticks out to him like a sore thumb. And he’s not shy about correcting teachers and principals.

Across two days of tours, Miles articulated a near-constant stream of quibbles. He told one principal that teachers should have students fist bump before partner conversations. He corrected an instructor whose countdown timer was on her personal computer, but not on the projector screen. And he noted that his curriculum team should revisit whether one classroom’s written learning objective was too long. 

A glance at his watch told him that some classes hadn’t transitioned to the team center on time. When a staff member at Ashford informed him that the delay was because two classes had been joined to accommodate an absent teacher, he chided the departure from his administration’s plan. Timeliness is a common problem across overhauled schools so far, he said.

“That’s where you use your teacher apprentices or assistant principals, so you don’t do that,” Miles said. “We do not change the schedule. We figure it out.” 

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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...