Kaylan McGregor, an incoming junior at North Forest High School, exits Pacsun clothing store with new back to school clothes from Deerbrook Mall in Humble on Saturday. – Photo by Joseph Bui for Houston Landing/Texas Tribune

(Houston Landing)– Kamden Terry is feeling the pressure headed into his senior year at Kashmere High School.

He wants to succeed in the classroom, following in the footsteps of his valedictorian older sister. He aspires to star on the football field, hoping to catch the eye of college coaches watching his game film.

But as his final year of high school begins, Kamden is nervous about huge changes coming this year to Kashmere under new, state-appointed Superintendent Mike Miles. As he stuffed football gear into his bag on a recent Tuesday, the blistering heat bearing down on his Northeast Houston home, his coach’s advice rang in his ears, “Just get through the year. Don’t let what’s going on in Houston [Independent School District] disrupt you.”

“With this new administration, I really kind of just don’t know what to expect,” Kamden said. “So now I just have to go throughout the school year not knowing what changes are going to happen.”

After a heated summer marked by adults arguing over the district’s future, thousands of Houston ISD students like Kamden returned to radically different campuses Monday as a new era begins in Texas’ largest school district.

While most Houston ISD classrooms will look roughly the same as last school year, 28 campuses largely located on the city’s northeast side are undergoing a dramatic overhaul this year under Miles. Among the many contentious changes at those schools: more money for educators, a new bell schedule, more standardized lesson plans, stricter discipline policies and the conversion of libraries to areas partially set aside for misbehaving children.

For teens attending two of those campuses – Kashmere and North Forest high schools – the upheaval adds to the typical swirl of emotions that accompanies the first day of classes.

Some are anxious about the changes after hearing rumors that their favorite teachers and staff members might be gone. Some are grateful for the new effort to support them, frustrated that past leaders didn’t serve them well enough. And others are just apathetic or out of the loop, exhausted from part-time jobs and summer school.

Regardless of their sentiments, all share this in common: They’re the ones most affected by the whirlwind of changes sweeping through Houston ISD classrooms.

For Kashmere and North Forest students, the stakes are enormous. For years, many graduates of the two campuses have left high school unprepared for college or the workforce, state data shows.

Historically, local leaders have blamed the poor performance on inadequate funding from Republican state legislators and the effects of intergenerational poverty, among other factors. But Miles has rejected those claims, arguing that Houston ISD officials failed to implement systems and policies that would lift up students.

“We have a proficiency problem,” Miles said, talking about stagnant reading scores during a family event in late July. “We in HISD have not been able to close that gap for over 20 years.”

Kamden Terry, 17, reflects on his high school experience before going to football practice, Aug. 22, in Houston. – Photo by Joseph Bui for Houston Landing/Texas Tribune

The promise and peril of change casts a shadow over the future of Kamden, a Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps member who hopes to study veterinary medicine at Texas A&M University. After two months of his football group chat pinging with rumors about which Kashmere teachers wouldn’t return in the fall, he’s suddenly grappling with a new set of unknowns.

“That does make me nervous a little bit, because you build a trust [with educators] and then, out of nowhere, the next year they’re just not going to be there anymore,” Kamden said.

Falling short

In June, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath appointed Miles and a new nine-member board to lead Houston ISD, part of state sanctions against the district largely stemming from poor academic ratings at Phillis Wheatley High School. In addition to the 28 schools required to undergo an overhaul this year, another 57 campuses also signed on to a slimmed-down version of Miles’ plans.

While the punishment is largely tied to Wheatley, also located on the city’s northeast side, Miles has said drastic change is needed at long-struggling schools like Kashmere and North Forest.

At Kashmere, four-year graduation rates have hovered near 70%, roughly 15 percentage points below the district average. In recent years, about 30% of graduates from both schools enrolled in a Texas college or university after graduating, compared to about 45% of other Houston ISD students. Only a handful of Kashmere and North Forest students enter college each year with Advanced Placement credit.

The numbers underpin what North Forest junior Kaylan MacGregor described as a demoralizing academic experience. She wants to go into the medical field and study to become a surgeon, but fears her instructors haven’t prepared her for higher education.

“Most teachers will just say, ‘Hey, if you don’t get it, oh well, I can’t help you that much,’” Kaylan said. “Or, ‘You’re not trying that hard,’ or things of that nature. Not making it engaging for the students that actually want to learn.”

Houston ISD officials denied a request to interview the principals of Kashmere and North Forest, both of which are entering their third years leading their respective schools.

For the past several years, Houston ISD leaders have tried to reverse the performance trends, with mixed results.

District administrators have shaken up campus leadership, poured more money into the schools, increased teacher pay and added more support for students outside of the classroom.

Kashmere scored a C grade in 2019 under Texas’ accountability rating system, as students showed solid progress on state tests. The school wasn’t rated in 2020 or 2021 due to the pandemic. Kashmere received a D grade in 2022, but low-rated campuses weren’t officially rated as part of a final pandemic reprieve.

North Forest received a C grade in 2022, largely because many students earned industry certifications that boosted the school’s rating.

New approach, new faces

Under Miles, Houston ISD is taking those plans further.

This year, teachers at turnaround schools like North Forest and Kashmere will earn median salaries topping $80,000 – compared to roughly $65,000 in the rest of the district – and receive a $10,000 stipend. Miles has said he expects the change will lure some of Houston ISD’s most-effective teachers to work with students who need help the most.

In addition, educators will teach from scripted lesson plans and follow a daily schedule implemented by Houston ISD’s top leadership. Principals will spend more time in classrooms coaching educators and less time on administrative tasks. Teachers will be required to keep their classroom doors open all day long, a contentious policy that Miles argues will create transparency and hold teachers accountable.

“It instills an environment of professionalism,” Miles said. “Teachers shouldn’t have anything to hide. People should be able to see what’s going on in the classroom all of the time.”

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