Houston ISD superintendent Mike Miles met with community members in southeast Houston to discuss their visions for the district on Wednesday. Parents said their main concerns were quality teaching, special education programming and mental health support.
The group of parents with the advocacy group Latinos for Education have been meeting for 8 weeks to learn about how to actively advocate for their kids in HISD. Many of them live in the local Magnolia Park area, which is 96 percent Latino, with 86 percent of households in the area using Spanish as their primary language.
"Many of these parents are immigrants and not as familiar with how the education system works," said Sandra Nuñez, Latinos for Education's managing director of programs and partnerships. "We've been familiarizing them with things like how state school accountability ratings work, for example, as well as teaching advocacy skills."
Among attendees' priorities was the necessity of bilingual educators in schools, especially those located in areas with a high number of Spanish speakers. Several attendees reported having felt unable to express their concerns to school administrators because of a language barrier. Others said they had heard of some families and students experiencing racism from school employees. Overall, 62 percent of students in HISD are Latino.
"We haven't insisted on it, but we have pushed the principals to have people in the front office who can speak Spanish so that people can have access," said Miles. "I think most of them do have people in the building who can speak Spanish and can be immediately available."
Miles also said that HISD is shifting schools that have previously offered bilingual education to dual-language programs, meaning 50 percent of instruction is in English and 50 percent in Spanish.
"One of the challenges with bilingual education is if you don't introduce enough English, kids will stay in that bilingual education a lot longer without mastering English," said Miles. "The research is pretty clear that dual language is a better way of doing that."
The group also brought up school safety as a concern.
Miles said the district has hired 52 additional police officers this school year, including 12 who will patrol the district's elementary schools. More will be added next year.
Miles said many of the group's priorities aligned with his own. However, he also said they presented points that he will give more attention to moving forward, such as the security and values of the specific community each school is a part of.
"One thing I'm very sympathetic to is the security of the area and if there's something we can do about that," said Miles. "Also, I've thought about this before, but I'm now going to think harder about it: how we can make sure that kids have the values this community wants, versus district-wide values."
Overall, parents seemed pleased with the night's discussion.
"This was a very successful and productive conversation, I think," said Laura Ortega, an attendee whose children attend J.R. Harris Elementary School. "I felt like they hit every point that I personally wanted them to."
Nuñez said she's hopeful the meeting made an impact.
"I hope that we will see some immediate changes and maybe plans for some long-term changes as well," she said.