HISD

From ‘I feel like I’m in prison’ to ‘I’m actually learning,’ Houston ISD students have mixed feelings about Mike Miles’ reform program

Students in Houston ISD are almost halfway through the first school year under state-appointed leadership. On some campuses, a sweeping reform program has completely transformed the typical school day. It’s not working for all students. 

Phyllis Wheatley High School
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Phyllis Wheatley High School
https://cdn.houstonpublicmedia.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/06113609/web-version-student-voices.mp3?source=rss-feed

Just before 4:30 p.m., when the 8-hour school day ends at Kashmere High School, a man waited in a pickup truck.

"I don't need my name in print," he said. "I’m just James, Class of ‘75."

James, Class of ‘75, remembers the days when Kashmere was in the national spotlight for a good reason — the Kashmere Stage Band.

The late Conrad Johnson, also known as Prof, directed the student funk group. The band practiced outside during fifth period.

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"We were allowed to sit and listen to ‘em practice, as long as you made no noise, Prof didn't allow you to make no noise," James remembered. “You could sit there and listen — you could listen to ‘em practice.”

The band won competitions, was praised by the Texas Governor, and toured the world — all of that is captured in the 2010 documentary, Thunder Soul. It tells the story of how the Kashmere Stage Band and Prof Conrad Johnson brought much more to the school than just funk. His former students credit him with emotional development — "how to be men."

Thunder Soul Movie Official Trailer 2011 HD

"School was great then," said James, Class of ‘75. "I don’t know what it’s like now."

Almost 50 years later, current Kashmere students still remember, with nostalgia, a time when they heard music in between classes.

"Last year, we was chilling," said Kashmere senior Kevin Terrell. "They played music during passing period, like on the radio. Everybody just listening to music going to class. They tried to relate to us."

"This year, they're not relating to us at all," Terrell continued. "Basically, they took away all our freedom and joy — on God."

There are a lot of changes at Kashmere. It's part of the so-called New Education System, which features a longer school day, tightly scripted lessons, quizzes every class and a zero-tolerance policy for rule-breaking.

For Terrell, that means he's regularly told to take off his beanie and hood, even when the cold distracts him from class.

"This ain’t lit," Terrell said. "This is not fun. I feel like I’m in prison."

He isn't the only student who feels that way — at Kashmere, or across the 85 schools in the New Education System.

"We have no fun, working 24/7, hard work every day," said Wheatley High senior Rodney Deshar. "Work, work, work, work, work — every day, every day."

"I feel like it’s not fair to us or to other students because we’re not used to this," said Wheatley sophomore Chanel Davis. "Coming to school from 8:30 to 4:30 is really doing too much, for real, because people be tired. People be sleepy and falling asleep."

"We’re not lazy," said Pugh Elementary 5th grader Sophie Rojas. "It’s like there’s so much work. They added two more hours, so we have to leave there at 4:00. I almost fell asleep. There’s so much kids falling asleep in class."

Rojas really doesn't like the timed quizzes at the end of every class.

"Kids keep on finishing before me, which kind of adds more stress because I only have one minute or three seconds or two seconds," she said. "I always almost cry, but I have to suck it in because I can’t cry in class."

Pugh Elementary faced reforms even though it did well on state standards in recent years. But it's in the feeder pattern for Wheatley High, which has struggled in the past.

While the debate at Pugh centers on whether the school actually needed reforms, the conversation at Wheatley and Kashmere isn't whether something needed to change — it's about the way things are changing.

Some students do support the reforms, like Wheatley senior Dixon Sambulla supports the reforms.

"It was a bad, toxic environment," he said. "It wasn’t a good environment. But now, yeah, I’m actually learning, and they’re actually teaching."

Kashmere High School
Travis Bubenik
Kashmere High School

Kashmere Sophomore Cesar Nieto III also prefers the changes.

"I guess it was necessary because it was kind of like all over the place last year, but now it’s all way better," he said.

These students, like the administration, think students are generally learning more with the new model, especially now that there's more discipline in the schools.

Worthing High principal Alexandria Gregoire spoke at a recent roundtable of campus administrations, moderated by state-appointed superintendent Mike Miles, the architect of the New Education System.

"I've not seen this much learning in HISD for the eight years that I've been here," she said. "Yes, it has been hard, but it's been really good work."

The November roundtable featured lofty praise for the reform program from the campus principals who are directly implementing the changes. The crowd was invite-only. Unlike board meetings and public community meetings, there were no dissenting voices at the event. But outside schools, it's not hard to find students who aren't happy.

Before the reform program kicked off, Kashmere Junior DiCapryon Euell-Holloway was already fed up with his school. He recently lost his uncle after helping take care of him for years.

"This school did not help me at all when it came to my loss," he said. "Because I had to take care of him. Literally, I had to skip school, I had to stay at home to take care of him."

It was a rough time, and he felt unsupported by many of the educators at Kashmere. But, he says, there were some teachers who tried to help. Now, they're gone.

"I feel like (the state-appointed administration) has a good motive of what they’re doing, but they took away the wrong teachers — because all the teachers that helped me are gone, just gone," he said. "All the teachers that tried to help me and my situation — who understood me, who understood me — they’re gone. And I feel like now I’m empty because the people that actually made me come to this school are gone now."

Kashmere was one of the 28 schools where every staffer had to reapply for their jobs over the summer. Here, about two out of every five didn't come back, which represents more than a doubling in the turnover rate compared to the previous year. Kashmere was targeted, in part, because it had failed to meet state standards.

Euell-Holloway says there's nothing that makes him want to come to school now. This is exactly what elected school board member Kathy Blueford Daniels worries about.

"What can we do to retain these children in school?" she said. "What can we offer them so that they don’t become dropouts?"

Blueford-Daniels is a Wheatley alum from the class of 1975. And she still talks about the Kashmere stage band as a shining example of how schools can create high-quality, culturally relevant programs. She wants more funding for expanded arts and career programming at the schools in her area.

She's in the last month of her term representing Northeast Houston, where many of the schools face reforms. She thinks that changes were necessary, but she disagrees with the way her state-appointed replacements — most of whom live west of downtown — are going about it.

"It takes us — that are from the community, in the community — to be able to identify and correct those types of things, and we’ve lost that," she said.

For Kashmere senior Kevin Terrell, the new administration is too focused on academics and discipline without adequate support for students’ emotional and mental well-being.

"I ain’t gonna lie, I come to school every day mad, angry, depressed, all of that — full of feelings of rage," he said. "I feel like they need emotional support at school for students ... Because simply asking us a question every single day about how we feel or whatever — like just not trying to sit down and talk to us, chop it up with us, take time out of their day, out of your workday to help us better ourselves, our mental — like what are you here for? All you're doing is just getting paid to tell us A-B-C-D, 1-2-3."