What Went Wrong at the Rice School?

The Rice School/La Escuela Rice was a much-touted experiment by HISDand Rice University. So far, the results haven't been encouraging.

Marvin Hoffman recalls giving David Cohen a ride to the airport in the fall of 1993 after a presentation to a committee planning what would become the Rice School. Cohen, an expert on experimental schools from the University of Michigan, was the latest in a string of high-powered specialists brought in to help brainstorm the project, which was being developed as a partnership between Rice University and the Houston Independent School District.

Joan Raymond, who by that time had been forced out as HISD's superintendent by a board fed up with her abrasive style of management, had thought up the project as a solution to overcrowding at West University Elementary and other nearby schools. The district had been fighting a losing battle to keep affluent white parents and their children from defecting to private schools and stripping the already patchy veneer of integration from the sprawling district.

"On the way back to the airport, I was still at my most optimistic and most enthusiastic phase," says Hoffman, who was then a professor of clinical education at Rice University and a coordinator of the Writers in the Schools program for HISD.

A veteran of assignments at the T.H. Rogers School and Jones High in HISD, Hoffman is an advocate of teaching techniques that empower students and allow them a measure of control in structuring their own curriculum and learning environments. The promise of the Rice School to let students learn at their own pace in mixed-age classes had attracted his interest. Indeed, Hoffman became one of the early Rice University representatives on the planning team, and one of the most enthusiastic. As the planning moved toward reality, the Rice School was conceived as a showcase, both for the prestigious private university and the beleaguered public school district, one that would offer state-of-the-art instructional methods on a state-of-the-art campus.

But back in 1992, two years before the doors would swing open at the Rice School, David Cohen was having none of Hoffman's pie-eyed optimism.

"He said," recalls Hoffman, " 'You know, Marvin, ventures like this seldom succeed.'

"I was so devastated and really angry with him at that point. I didn't want to hear that," says Hoffman with the resignation of hindsight. "But God, he was right."

At least so far. When the 1997-'98 school year opened this week, the Rice School was under its fourth principal in as many years. Few of the teachers who helped launch the school in 1994 were still on hand. Affluent parents have pulled their children from the school in droves, with some complaining that its freeform "integrated" curriculum neglected basic reading and math skills. And just a few weeks ago, the Texas Education Agency ranked the Rice School the only "low performing" elementary in the width and breadth of HISD. While that rating is somewhat misleading, based as it is on the performance of the school's economically disadvantaged students on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, it was still a major embarrassment for the school district and served to underscore the gap between the children of affluent white parents and minority students that the Rice School was designed to bridge.

As with most issues of public education, there is no easy explanation for what went wrong at the Rice School. Certainly, the initial, idealized vision of the school as a technology-rich, individualized learning environment for average students quickly dimmed when confronted by the realities of a giant urban school district. Divisions of race and class, and the often-conflicting demands of the larger community, all contributed to the turmoil that marred the school's first three years. Inside politics at HISD also played a big part. But most of all, the Rice School has been burdened with unreasonable expectations that it would fulfill its promises to parents from day one.

"This is a guinea pig school," says businessman Malcolm Waddell, who has two daughters at the Rice School. "You needed to be aware of that from the beginning."

By the time it opened after five years of planning, there was nothing simple about the Rice School, or the Rice School/La Escuela Rice, as it is formally named. First proposed as a release valve to absorb excess West University children from crowded area elementaries, it had mushroomed into an incredibly complex educational experiment that aspired to be all things to all parties with an interest in its success.

West U parents would be wooed with its heavily promoted ties to Rice University and innovative multi-age classes grouped in "clusters" of classrooms, where children could progress at their own rate and even tutor each other while surrounded by more computers than a private school. Peering from the other side of the tracks, inner-city parents saw a shimmering, safe harbor where their kids would be secure from the violence permeating the hallways and yards of their own neighborhood schools. For Rice University, it offered the opportunity to strengthen the college's ties to the community and see educational theory put into practice.

"There were high expectations -- admittedly unreasonable expectations," acknowledges HISD trustee Don McAdams, whose district includes the area and who has championed the school from the drawing board to the school board.

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