Before classes started in late August at Cage Elementary, one veteran teacher felt broken. On the Friday ahead of class, administrators instructed teachers to remove "clutter" from their rooms — including decorations and classroom libraries.
"I broke down," said the teacher, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. "They wanted to break me? They broke me."
After three weeks of classes, Central Office administrator Luz Martinez stopped by the combined campus of Cage Elementary and Project Chrysalis Middle schools with a directive for teachers: affirm their commitment to the New Education System model before the end of the weekend or be reassigned.
"For what I am hearing, some of you are implementing the model with fidelity, and others might need more support," Martinez told them, adding that she was implementing a "reset" at the school. "I am going to be assigning different personnel to this campus to be in your classrooms all the time — helping, supporting."
Teachers were told about the mandatory after-school meeting earlier that day, and some didn't show up. Those who attended were told to affirm their commitment to the reforms or request a transfer by 6 p.m. on Sunday.
Martinez said she understood that some teachers might not want to implement the NES model, which features tightly scripted lessons, mandatory student-engagement strategies every four minutes and timed quizzes at the end of each class.
"You will not be here in this campus," Martinez told the teachers. "I will reassign you to another place because we are not going to be fighting this battle all year long. We got to implement the model. We will implement the model. I need you to be able to be willing to implement the model. And we’re going to support you 100%."
According to teachers, compliance with the reform program, at times, precludes compliance with special education law. Some students have individualized special ed plans that call for assessments to be read aloud or for extra time on quizzes.
"That was specifically outlined in their (individualized education plan)," the teacher who requested anonymity said. "I was told that that was not allowed — even if they could not read it, that they have to do it all on their own."
Houston Public Media confirmed that two teachers who questioned Martinez at the meeting were subsequently told they would be fired for alleged insubordination. Citing advice from the teachers' union, one of them declined an interview on Monday but, over the weekend, told Houston Press that they were just asking questions.
A spokesperson for Houston ISD did not comment on the situation.
One week before the meeting at Cage and Chrysalis, Central Division superintendent Luz Martinez sat for an interview with reporters. At the time, she said most teachers in the NES system were implementing the reforms well.
"The question to ask is, you know, how do we bring more people from the ones that don’t and the naysayers or the nonbelievers, how do we move them to what we’re trying to do with purpose and passion, helping them understand what we’re trying to do so that we can do a better job for kids," Martinez said at the time.
Union president Jackie Anderson, with the Houston Federation of Teachers, questioned the word "nonbelievers" and blasted the division superintendent for seeking termination of the two teachers who questioned her.
"This is not a cult," Anderson said. "Dr. Martinez, your answer is, ‘You can get out. Leave the meeting.' So where are the answers? If your NES model is so great and so wonderful, you should be able to explain it and answer questions."
The language sounded familiar. State-appointed superintendent Mike Miles has also referred to his critics as "naysayers" who, he argued, don't represent most of the Houston ISD community. Those assertions continue despite the drumbeat of opposition from many parents, the teachers' union — whose members comprise more than half the educators in the district — and from several of the elected trustees who were replaced with hand-picked managers by the Texas Education Agency in June.
Outside Cage Elementary and Chrysalis Middle schools on Monday morning, parents protested.
Mayra Lemus is the parent of three children who attend school there.
"I am angry that this is happening to our school," Lemus said. "I thought about transferring my kids because of this, but I'm not because I am here to fight for every single one of these kids."
Her daughter, seventh grader Jayden Peña, said school this year is "more boring."
"It feels like they're reading from scripts whenever they're teaching us," she said. "And it's hard for them because they can't even teach the way they want to teach."