Earlier this month, Kourtney Revels made her way through the streets of Houston, knocking on door after door with a single message for the community: Pay attention to what’s happening in the Houston Independent School District.
The effort, called “Block Walking, was organized by the grassroots advocacy group Community Voices for Public Education and Revels is among many concerned parents and advocates hoping to raise awareness about the swath of changes being made to the school system in Houston.
“The reason we started knocking doors and doing our block walking campaign is because we realized that a lot of people, especially people whose kids were no longer in the education system, did not realize what was going on,” Revels told NBC News.
In March, following a yearslong court battle, the state’s public education entity, the Texas Education Agency, took control of the school district from its elected board. The following month, the state appointed Mike Miles as superintendent and he soon instituted a plan called the New Education System, an initiative to reform a district plagued by low reading levels and standardized test scores. According to the HISD website, NES schools will implement several reforms, including a more rigorous instruction, in an effort to improve academic outcomes. The schools in the new system largely serve Black, Latino and low-income students.
Since NES came into being, critics have complained about the numerous changes being introduced, such as eliminating nearly two dozen special education contracting jobs, changing dual language programs and converting at least 28 school libraries into discipline areas called “team centers,” where students with behavioral issues can attend classes virtually.
Revels and others have devoted themselves to raising concerns at board meetings, protesting and engaging the community about the changes. She said she is not optimistic about her daughter’s experience in the upcoming school year, as she attends the predominantly Black and Latino B.C. Elmore Elementary School on the city’s northeast side.
“I know that schools like mine have a target on them,” said Revels, who has circulated a petition to oppose the state’s control of the HISD. “I know the type of kids that have a target on them.” Revels recalled a June school board meeting in which some members of the public were sent to an overflow area, away from the main boardroom — which is not traditional practice, the Texas Tribune reported. This, she said, was an omen of things to come.
“When we upset them, they put us in a room and we had to speak to them virtually,” Revels said. “So we already know what’s gonna happen to our children. Because if they’ll do it to us, our children are not above reproach.”
A district spokesperson, Joseph Sam, said in a statement that there were 50 seats in the boardroom for elected officials, members of the public and local media. “Members of the public who could not be seated in the boardroom were seated in our overflow room. The room was set to allow for a more productive discussion among board members about the district budget,” Sam said. Sam added that people in the overflow room were able to watch the meeting virtually and ask questions.
In an interview with NBC Nightly News airing Wednesday, Miles said the parents’ frustration is “understandable.”
“I’ve been pushing reform for a long time and been part of change movements for a long time. So, I get the angst. I get the anxiety,” the superintendent said. “Whenever there’s change, sometimes people gravitate to their worst fears instead of their best hopes. And my job and my team’s job is to move them from here towards this.”
Library changes are part of Miles’ New Education System. As part of the plan, several librarians will transition to other, unspecified positions within the district, HISD spokesperson Jose A. Irizarry said in a statement. Earlier this month, parents and children read books during an HISD school board meeting to protest the changes.
Cheryl Hensley is one of those displaced librarians, having lost her job after nearly 40 years at HISD. Hensley said she has not yet accepted a new position.
“That was hurtful,” she said of the change. The Texas Library Association awarded Hensley the 2023 Siddie Joe Johnson Award for her dedication to children’s book access.
“Little kids need that book in their hand. They need guidance, they need to be able to find things easily, and I could tell them that. I’m the specialist in that area.” She added that working parents may not be easily able to take children to public libraries, “so it’s sad that the library in their school, their access, is being denied.”
Throughout her decadeslong career, Hensley has helped nurture several children who later became HISD parents themselves. As for changes to school libraries, Miles said that reading will be incorporated into other school subjects in place of having a library. “We can’t be all things all people and we can’t have everything we want,” he said.
Lauren Simmons is one of those parents who recalled her own relationship with Hensley as a second-grader. Today, Simmons has a son in high school and a daughter in elementary school. She called the library changes “counterproductive” and wondered how her daughter, who has dyslexia, will fare amid changes to the district’s Office of Special Education Services.
Sam, the HISD spokesperson, told NBC News earlier this month that the district will cut the special education contract jobs, including disability experts, to focus on hiring full-time special education employees. There are currently more than 30 open special education positions, according to the district website. Critics have said having contractors as additional support staff has been crucial for diagnosing children with special needs and getting them the resources they need.
“My question to Mike Miles would be, ‘What am I supposed to do for my baby girl who is doing her best?’ We have gotten her evaluated. We have sat down with teachers, we have worked on an individualized plan. Now to say we just don’t need additional support staff … is really frustrating,” Simmons said.
Sam said the school system “currently has an adequate number of district-employed diagnosticians” and will continue to use independent contractors on an as-needed basis. Parents and teachers have said this change came without any community input.
“We’ve been pushing back,” Simmons said. “What we wanted was our state to put our resources into our district to fix the issues that were already there. Instead, we lost our voice.”
The tension can even be felt in teachers like Aurelia Wagner, who has spent eight years teaching elementary students. She said she was excited to sign onto Miles’ NES plan with hopes of making more money and having more resources for her students.
“I did not sign up to have libraries closed down for them to be used for potential discipline centers,” she lamented. She said she’s not looking forward to a new, rigid school structure that focuses on instruction and makes little time for play and creativity.
“I’m nervous for the kids,” Wagner said. “The first day or two of school used to be ‘getting to know you’ activities … we’re not doing that anymore. First day of school, bell-to-bell instruction is what we were told. I’m concerned for the children that they’re going to lose their love of learning, lose their love of coming to school. School is supposed to be a safe place and I think that for some children school is now going to be a place of drill and kill.” “Drill and kill” is a phrase often used in educational circles to mean that by drilling a student with educational information you will kill their excitement and motivation to learn.
Wagner is a renowned teacher and advocate in Houston. In 2018, the district honored her with the Emily Scott Evans Award, given to third-grade teachers who go above and beyond for their students. She unsuccessfully ran for state representative for District 147 in 2022.
Celina Manzano, who has two sons — one who has autism and another who has ADHD — said she is worried that her children will be swept up in this new strict, discipline-focused school structure.
“He has no idea what I’m battling with my babies,” Manzano said of the superintendent. She lamented that district officials haven’t communicated well with parents who only speak Spanish, saying, “They haven’t given us any information.”
The Texas Education Agency takeover came about four years after it released results of its 2019 investigation into board members’ malfeasance and recommended that the state replace the district’s elected board of trustees, KHOU reported. Thousands of HISD parents, teachers, students and community members, like Revels, Simmons and Mindy Wilson, protested the takeover to no avail.
“I didn’t expect all of this to happen so quickly,” said Wilson, who has two children in HISD. “The unapologetic stripping of programming within our district, getting rid of a lot of administration and special education teachers, they’re converting sacred spaces like libraries. It’s been one appalling trainwreck after the next.”