Houston ISD releases final list of NES campuses, including Austin High and 18 elementary and middle schools

The controversial New Education System is expanding. Community members have mixed feelings about the changes.

HISD Mike Miles
Dominic Anthony Walsh/Houston Public Media
Houston ISD superintendent Mike Miles speaks during a community engagement event.

130 Houston ISD campuses will fall under the "New Education System" reform program next year, after the district announced an additional 19 "opt-in" schools on Friday.

"More and more people in Houston are getting to know the NES and are seeing the difference it makes for our students — but also for our staff who have the opportunity at NES schools to earn some of the highest teacher salaries in the nation," said state-appointed superintendent Mike Miles in a press release. "When we looked at the list of principals who, after talking with their staff and families, decided the NES is the best way to support kids at their campuses, we weren't going to turn a single one of them away."

The schools include Austin High, along with 18 elementary and middle schools. Two weeks ago, the district announced a separate group of 26 campuses, including Sharpstown and Westbury high schools, would be forced to face NES reforms. By August, the 45 newcomers will join the 85 schools already in the program this year.

In some communities, parents have pushed back against the expansion of NES, which features centrally created lessons, a district-approved model of instruction, higher pay for teachers and a shakeup to staffing models. It's a significant departure from Houston ISD's previous decentralized approach, where campuses had more autonomy over instruction and staff.

Eugenio Saenz, PTO president at Betsy Ross Elementary, was "not happy" when he found out his daughter's school would become NES. He argued Houston ISD has needed changes for a long time to level inequity, but he hoped to see policies like "giving them better resources, better opportunity."

"But if you’re changing a curriculum and changing the way someone teaches something, it’s like changing the way someone walks, the way someone talks," Saenz continued. "And you’re doing that to teachers who have been teaching for 20, 30 years. A lot of those teachers don’t want to do that because they know each student learns differently."

Why these schools now?

The current NES expansion focused on schools that would have struggled with revamped state standards from the Texas Education Agency. The TEA accountability system assigns campuses an A through F grade — based largely on test scores and post-graduation outcomes — and the agency announced a major overhaul to that system last year.

At a press conference about the revamp in May 2023, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath defended the more stringent approach.

"We want to eliminate achievement gaps by race and by class, and we want to ensure that Texas is a leader in preparing students for postsecondary success across the nation," Morath said. "This is kind of the rigorous expectation Texas needs to be a national leader in preparing students for postsecondary success."

More than 100 school districts across Texas sued the TEA over the revamp, and the agency is currently blocked from releasing the new grades.

Houston ISD administrators used the blocked methodology to calculate how campuses here would have performed. The number of D and F-rated schools soared, from less than 10 two years ago to more than 100 last year.

Many parents were skeptical of the new ratings, including Amanda Pappas, PTO president at Crockett Elementary, which would have slumped from an A to low D, putting it in among the 26 NES-mandatory schools.

"I don’t think that a grade that was given based off of something that’s currently held up in court — that shouldn’t be legally something that he should be able to use to grade schools," Pappas said. "I’m here all the time. You know, I see all the different classrooms, I see all the different teachers, and everybody’s doing such a great job."

Over the past two weeks, district administrators have emphasized the importance of community input in the decision-making process. According to the Houston ISD, 19 campus principals requested inclusion in the NES program, while only five elementary school leaders rejected the reforms. The district accepted all 19 schools, despite initially saying there was room for only 14.

As Miles acknowledged at a press conference on Thursday, the decision to opt in or out ultimately rested with school principals whose salaries could rise by about $20,000 to $30,000 if they chose to become NES.

"I think salary often, you know, is always a part of someone’s decision to work, especially in a profession that’s tough," Miles said. "It’s a tough profession. And so, yes, higher salaries is a part of — it's not the only thing — both teachers' willingness to work and administrators' willingness to work."

At Betsy Ross Elementary, PTO president Eugenio Saenz became increasingly skeptical of the campus principal after she responded to his 500-word email about not wanting NES with a 67-word message that misstated the name and grade level of his daughter.

"I value your input and appreciate your advocacy for your child’s education," the principal wrote. "We both share the same goal of providing a robust educational experience for all scholars here at Betsy Ross Elementary" she added before naming a different student in a different grade.

"You copied and pasted a template from someone else’s email and sent that to me," Saenz speculated. "So you obviously don’t care. You’re not invested in the community, and you’re not listening to us."

After the announcement that Betsy Ross would become NES, Saenz said he plans to send his daughter to a different school.

NES remains divisive, though some parents are open to the changes

Joshua Connelly and K.L. Cao, parents of a Crockett Elementary kindergartner, remained open to the NES program after the school's informational meeting, but they were taken aback by what they perceived as a lack of transparency around how the ratings were calculated.

"I am open-minded," Cao said. "But from the feeling of other parents, I think it feels like they don’t trust what is being said. I think there’s a couple of transparency issues such as how the school was chosen — like what were the test scores that they went off of to say that Crockett needs to be a part of the NES program?"

"HISD, as a whole, has been doing terrible," Connelly said, adding that the arts magnet program at Crockett has been great for his daughter. "Something needed to change (at the district level). I don’t know if this was what needed to change, but doing the same thing over and over again is idiocy."

Liz Silva, a parent with the Crockett PTO, was less enthusiastic.

"I'm hoping that if our principal stays, she’s able to finesse (the arts magnet program) into the guidelines of the NES curriculum," Silva said, adding that she still plans to keep her kids at the school. "I just can’t imagine my children anywhere else, and I just am hoping for the best."

State-appointed superintendent Mike Miles designed the NES program before he took office. As his administration implemented the reforms, teachers have left the district in higher-than-normal numbers, and students have expressed deeply mixed feelings about the changes.

The program includes higher salaries for educators, who are expected to adhere to a district-approved model of instruction and timed slideshows created by the central curriculum department. At the end of each lesson, students take a quiz and, based on their performance, separate into groups for further instruction.

Over the summer, protests intensified over teacher turnover and the removal of librarians from NES campuses. Recently, many community members have reacted negatively to the absence of full-length books from NES curriculum until high school.

"The environment is literacy-rich," Miles argued on Thursday, pointing to the presence of passages, short stories and articles in NES reading classes. "Things like that are part of the NES curriculum from 3rd grade through 8th grade. 9th and 10th is a little bit different. Their passages are longer. They also assign books for homework. Juniors and seniors are not part of NES, and they have their curriculum like they always have had."

Miles has also emphasized travel opportunities for NES 7th and 8th graders, the new "Art of Thinking" courses, which explore a range of topics from critical thinking to information literacy, as well as the Dyad program, which uses non-certified contractors to lead various enrichment activities, from yoga to music.

At Love Elementary, one of the five elementary schools that rejected the reforms, parents were skeptical of the uniform approach to instruction and curriculum.

"Kids as a whole don’t fit into one box, right?" Love PTO president Nicole Pepper said. "Every kid, every person is unique. Every situation is different."

She argued families with resources will likely flee as the NES program expands.

"They’re allowing people that have the opportunity to make choices to leave certain schools to do so, and they’re creating a lot more segregation in HISD," she argued. "We are moving backwards with this type of model."

TEA-appointed management board and education commissioner Mike Morath continue to support Miles

TEA commissioner Mike Morath, who appointed Miles and the management board, visited Houston ISD campuses on Tuesday and praised what he saw as "a holistic educational experience with joy and love and all of the zest for life that you want to see in schools."

The TEA appointees on the management board have consistently praised the NES program, even as trustees on the elected school board — who do not hold policy-making power — remain split about the changes.

NES is a key driver of the TEA-appointed Board of Managers' push to significantly raise the percentage of students who meet grade-level standards on the state's standardized test. On Thursday, the board approved a longer school calendar and reviewed new goals for increasing the number of students who are ready for college and career. After the meeting, board president Audrey Momanaee spoke at a press conference.

"The guiding star is making sure that our kids are cared for and making sure that they have the best opportunities available to them," Momanaee said.