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Support for Houston ISD’s Spanish speakers has dwindled under state-appointed leader, parents say

By Brian Lopez, The Texas Tribune

Support for Houston ISD’s Spanish speakers has dwindled under state-appointed leader, parents say” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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For Celina Manzano, Pugh Elementary School in East Houston is no longer the welcoming place it used to be.

Manzano’s family mostly speaks Spanish, so her son Maycol’s teachers used to provide them with translations of his homework and make time for her to ask questions. But under the leadership of the state’s recently appointed superintendent, most of those teachers left after they were required to reapply for their jobs.

Accommodations for Spanish speakers are practically gone, Manzano said. Maycol, who started second grade this year, has told her he doesn’t want to go to school anymore.

It’s been over a month since the Houston Independent School District started its first school year after the state ousted its democratically elected school board and replaced the district’s previous leader with Superintendent Mike Miles. Since then, complaints have been piling up among Spanish-speaking families, who say they are not getting the support they need. In Houston ISD, about 36% of students are either bilingual or English learners.

The state’s takeover of the district was in response to years of poor academic outcomes at a single campus. Under Miles’ tenure, Pugh Elementary and more than 80 other campuses now operate under his “New Education System,” which he describes as an “innovative staffing model that puts the focus on classroom instruction and improved student outcomes.”

Classes used to be half in English and half in Spanish in dual-language schools like Pugh. Miles previously said that dual-language education would continue and even expand under the NES model, but parents say that support for Spanish speakers has dwindled.

Mike Miles, the state-appointed superintendent of Houston ISD, discusses public education in Texas' largest city with Jacob Carpenter, team leader of the Houston Landing, at The Texas Tribune Festival in Austin on Sept. 23, 2023.
Mike Miles, the state-appointed superintendent of Houston ISD, discusses public education in Texas’ largest city at The Texas Tribune Festival in Austin on Sept. 23, 2023. Credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

In particular, the new “Science of Reading” class — based on psychology and neuroscience research on how children learn to read and the skills they need to do so — is taught only in English.

“You cannot read well if you can’t decode, and you cannot decode if you don’t do it in English,” Miles said at a community meeting in July where he explained his approach to families. “So we’re gonna do the science of reading, decoding and language comprehension in English, and then we will supplement [many English learners’ native] language, Spanish.”

Miles told The Houston Chronicle last month he would try to keep reading instruction as close as possible to the 50-50 model, but his priority would be teaching children the science of reading, even if the uneven split means losing funding. State law requires dual-language programs to divide instruction equally between English and an English learner’s native language.

Miles did not respond to an interview request or emailed questions.

Parents say the changes have gone further than that, noting that this school year their kids are receiving no instruction or assistance in Spanish at all.

Marta Quinteros said her 8-year-old son Angel struggles to speak and understand English, and she feels like the district isn’t doing enough to support her son like last year.

Quinteros said when she asked teachers and administrators at Scroggins Elementary School if they could explain lessons slower or in Spanish to her son, she was told they couldn’t.

Angel has also had issues with bullying but told Quinteros he hasn’t told anyone at school because he is afraid school officials will tell him he needs to speak English and he can’t do it that well.

“‘I’m not going to learn English, I’m not going to,”’ Quinteros said her son has told her.

Duncan Klussmann, a clinical assistant professor of school leadership at the University of Houston, said Miles’ reforms are affecting Spanish-speaking and bilingual families because they do not allow for a lot of customization in students’ learning.

“What we know about education is when 1,000 students walk into a building each day they all have very different needs that need to be addressed,” he said. “It’s still yet to be seen if the system that has been put in place will address the needs of bilingual students.”

Public education observers, teachers and parents have described Miles’ leadership and vision for the district as military-like and test-score-driven.

Several Houston ISD teachers and community members have criticized him for his “my way or the highway” approach, with Miles saying that those who don’t like his changes can choose to leave the district.

“If they don’t want to work in that kind of culture, they need to make the decisions that’s right for them,” he said at a Texas Tribune Festival event in Austin last month.

Under the NES schools, which were selected for the most significant immediate overhauls, every teacher had to reapply for their jobs with no guarantee they would be rehired. Those who stayed are monitored to make sure they are sticking to the curriculum and instructional materials provided by Miles’ leadership team.

Educators say Miles’ system has a rigid approach to teaching. They are tasked with following a strict teaching schedule, which district leaders created to reduce the time teachers spend preparing curriculum. Detractors say it limits educators’ ability to decide how to teach their classes.

Teachers who spoke to the Tribune and requested to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation said Miles’ system requires them not to spend time repeating lessons — even when they feel like students didn’t fully understand the material — and to skip any ice breakers or socializing in their classes. Miles has monitors in NES schools to make sure teachers are not deviating from the curriculum.

Miles believes the bad experiences some teachers have described are purely anecdotal and has framed them as examples of the “status quo” thinking prevalent in the state’s education system.

David DeMatthews, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin who has followed Miles’ career, said his approach will likely boost test scores. But DeMatthews doubts that such a system will produce sustainable academic improvements or help create a conducive environment for learning.

“That type of teaching is not going to be engaging over time. It’s not going to be rewarding for teachers,” DeMatthews said. “This is a very fast-food approach to education.”

But Miles also has people rooting for his success. Sue Deigaard, a former Houston ISD school board member, said while she agrees that Miles’ changes have been abrupt, the district probably needed them.

“The intention to not waste another year for students who are behind is a commendable approach,” Deigaard said. “Our kids have had enough lost years.”

But she added that the new leadership could’ve done a better job at gathering input from the community, especially from people on those campuses that have experienced the greatest changes.

Klussmann said the underlying issue with the new system is whether Houston ISD leadership will give families options to opt out if it’s not working for them — especially in the midst of recent Republican efforts to allow parents to be more involved in decisions about their children’s education. One of the main arguments some Republican leaders have made for “school choice” — a proposal that would allow parents to use state funds to pay for their children’s private schooling — is that it would give low-income families more freedom to leave their school district if they’re not happy with it.

Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott called state lawmakers to return to Austin for a special legislative session starting on Oct. 9. He didn’t indicate what the focus of the session will be but he has long said it would be on school choice, one of his biggest priorities this year.

“State leadership and the Legislature really focused on parental choice this last year and the parents should have a say in the type of education that their child is getting, and I think [whether Houston ISD lets parents opt out] is going to be a test at the state level,” Klussmann said.

Manzano said she is lucky to live in a school zone that would allow her to switch districts if she remains unhappy with the changes at Houston ISD — she could go to Galena Park ISD east of Houston — but many parents don’t have that choice, and their kids must conform to the new rules or fall behind.

For both Manzano and Quinteros, if things don’t change, they will look elsewhere for their children’s education.

“If things continue like this, I have to take my son out of this school,” Manzano said. “I don’t like what’s going on.”

Celina Manzano's children head to school at Pugh Elementary School in East Houston on October 2, 2023.
Celina Manzano’s children head to school at Pugh Elementary School in East Houston. Credit: Danielle Villasana for The Texas Tribune

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