Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles, center, in discussion with students (left to right) Carlos Alvarado, Lorgi Martinez, Ariana Castañeda and Jayla London and Houston Landing education reporter Asher Lehrer-Small at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts on May 20, 2024. credit: Ayesha Muzaffar

Mike Miles Reminded Me That Schooling Isn’t About Listening To Students

I’m a long-time advocate for youth power in public schools, but Mike Miles reminded me that schooling in Houston isn’t structured for kid interests.

The Texas Education Agency installed the former Army Ranger and charter school network founder as superintendent during its takeover of the Houston ISD in 2023. In less than one school year, Miles implemented a new schooling system, eliminated several libraries, and issued massive layoffs.

He’s moving at a pace that would disorient anyone paying attention, opponents and allies included. Unfortunately, it was obvious in his conversation this week, hosted by the Houston Landing, that schooling in Houston is less about kids and more about whatever adults want.

I have a lot of baggage.

I spent the majority of my high school and college years fighting for and against the district as a member of the HISD Student Congress, formed in 2014. A couple students and I intervened on a Texas Supreme Court case, arguing Texas school districts deserve a finance system that allows for an abundance of resources — including licensed therapists and arts education courses. 

I criticized the district for its overreliance on technology in classrooms and advocated for a state law mandating student engagement on curriculum changes.

The Student Congress was a mighty force. But over time, the group lost strong adult supporters in the district due to trustee elections and staff turnover. Eventually, internal group disagreements ensued and the district’s administrators capitalized on that vulnerability. The superintendent at the time publicly attacked the students, treated alumni as outside agitators, and stressed the organization beyond its capacity, which led to its end.

HISD has a long history of suppressing student power.

Nearly 80 percent of HISD students are classified as economically disadvantaged. The majority are non-white, and many have more than one language spoken at home. Along those lines, the evening’s student panelists represented the district at a Landing event that wasn’t made for them.

The gathering was held downtown on a Monday night in the heat of school finals season. Tickets were $5 and those who came in cars paid an additional $15 to park in the most accessible parking garage. No language interpretation services were available.

This event was supposed to be about HISD students – a majority impoverished population. Yet among the average folks in the audience was a bizarre mix of suits, philanthropic foundation staff, and elected officials.

Residents at Houston Landing’s conversation between Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles and four graduating high school seniors. credit: Ayesha Muzaffar

I encourage everyone who watches the conversation to watch for  paternalism — for people interfering with others’ freedom for their own good. For people in authority presuming they know better than the person acted upon, or that the affected person is not capable of making good judgments.

The four students on the panel were highly involved, thoughtful, and reflective high school seniors who were very pointed in their remarks. Landing reporter Asher Lehrer-Small referred to the cohort as ‘experts’ but most of Miles’s responses to Lehrer-Small and the students boiled down to “I decide what’s good for the district.”

Many students and parents were shocked to see the district let go of their beloved school principals. Lehrer-Small asked (28:21) Miles to explain the difference between what communities see in their principal and what his team sees. 

Miles said (28:40) that the districts’ decisions to furlough staff members were based on data-driven reviews. But that data isn’t publicly available, and the district didn’t issue a student survey in advance of the reviewing process. The principals were let go and the district seems to expect students (and the public) to move on.

Miles expressed wanting an abundance of course offerings in schools. Aligned with his Destination 2035 goals, he announced (45:06) that the district is adding four courses in entrepreneurship, networking, health sciences, logistics and artificial intelligence at every school next year.

Later in the conversation, however, Sterling High School senior Lorgi Martinez asked Miles (1:07:43) why the district removed Ignite at her school. Ignite is a program that partnered with the district to help students like Martinez navigate the college admissions process and identify career opportunities.

Miles said (1:10:16) the district can’t afford to continue hosting programs like Ignite. But he didn’t explain how the district will adequately fund his new course offerings. Nor did he explain why his course offerings are much more important to fund over Ignite. 

At the beginning of the 2023-24 school year, Miles removed libraries at dozens of schools serving mostly low-income students. Many folks who oppose the move cite the district’s low literacy levels or concerns of equitable treatment.

For Furr High School senior Carlos Alvarado, a school library is a “sanctuary,” a safe space to destress and socialize without feeling heavily surveilled. He said (54:14) students are still depressed and enraged at the removal of such a treasured place on campus.

Miles didn’t directly address Alvarado’s concern on libraries, probably because he’s publicly responded to concerns at several board meetings. But Miles made the decision without student input, and no level of organizing or pushback has forced him to re-hire librarians like the one Alvarado cherished.

Yates High School senior Jayla London addresses Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles, center, as students (left to right) Carlos Alvarado and Lorgi Martinez, and Houston Landing education reporter Asher Lehrer-Small listen. credit: Ayesha Muzaffar

HISD rarely gives students a meaningful voice, which makes it difficult for me (or anyone) to talk about accountability with the district. However, Students Against Miles give me hope. SAM is an anonymous group of students across the district exposing HISD’s actions against student interests from a student perspective.

A student organizer told me, anonymously, that Miles’s paternalistic approach to the Landing conversation was unsurprising. I remember feeling frustrated, as a student, after district officials would clearly hear my issues and solutions, yet do nothing helpful in return.

The Student Congress kept pushing after those occasions. We formed new coalitions, mobilized our base and worked with allies in the district. But we were working with a democratically elected school board in a different political environment.

The HISD Board of Managers is unelected and many consider Miles a pawn of TEA Commissioner Mike Morath and by extension, Governor Greg Abbott. So the first of SAM’s four demands is to fire Superintendent Miles and restore an elected board of trustees.

I’ve never seen HISD students target district leadership in this manner. SAM is also demanding intellectually honest policy making, direct communication with district administrators and better protections for HISD staff. The group is holding school walkouts across the district to increase pressure on Miles and the district.

My peers and I pushed for change while hoping the school system would do the right thing, Students Against Miles already understands the playing field is rigged against kids.

I place my bet on the students winning. And anyone who wants in should know accountability relies on reciprocity and power-sharing, which children deserve (and should receive).

Section: Schooling
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