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.

For what now seems a brief, glorious season, the school seemed to meet all of them. Parents from virtually every corner of the district thronged to the planning and recruitment meetings for the new facility. When it came time for the lottery to select the student body, more than 7,000 parents from across HISD tried to enroll their children for the 1,200 slots. Rice University professors and lawyers and doctors stood in line to put their children on the list for the all too few openings. District master teachers, including a talented cadre of bilingual instructors, jockeyed for position on the Rice School faculty.

The month the school opened, Texas Monthly crowned then-principal Kaye Stripling as one of its 20 most influential Texans for creating an oasis in a public education wasteland. The following summer, Rice University's Sallyport magazine headlined a glowing piece on the university's project "Success on Seuss Drive."

The rave notices were premature, to say the least.
"I don't want to say the ball game is over, because there's always the possibility of recouping," says Marvin Hoffman, now based in Chicago. "But I think so much of the initial momentum and excitement is long lost and so many good people got chewed up in the process. A lot of good teachers left. A lot of parents pulled their kids out of the school. It's really tragic to contemplate."

Sandra Satterwhite is guiding her not totally welcome guest on a walk through the imposing Rice School building, three weeks before the start of the school's fourth year. A 30-year HISD veteran on loan from Superintendent Rod Paige's office, Satterwhite on this day is still exploring the turf of her new assignment as acting principal. The school was hardly ready for a public viewing, what with classrooms in disarray and computer technicians scurrying to rewire rooms and establish circuits.

The $11 million campus, located west of Kirby Drive off North Braeswood, is an eye opener for a first-time visitor. In contrast to the rigidly institutionalized, boxed-in layout of most HISD schools, the Rice School is a marvel of light and space, projecting a sense of openness and possibility. On its two floors, the clusters of five classrooms are each arranged around a communal space -- almost like a mini-town square -- where the mixed-age classes congregate when not in more traditional sessions with teachers. The centerpiece of the school is its library, which beckons to almost all points in the building. Banners are everywhere in the hallways, urging "Self Respect," "Honesty" and "Diversity." Also everywhere is evidence of the $2 million worth of computer technology donated by Compaq, the screen savers on the ubiquitous terminals blinking slowly like drowsy electronic first-graders.

As Satterwhite leads her visitor through the computer lab, the words of a now-disillusioned planner from Rice University's education department echo loud and clear.

"Look around you when you're there," said this educator. "You'll see where they spent all the money." The comment, coming from a skeptic of the notion that fancy computers somehow guarantee a better education, was not meant as a compliment.

Satterwhite found herself at the helm of the Rice School after district administrators ousted principal Sharon Koonce and her two assistant principals in June. That action provoked the largest gathering of parents in the school's short history at nearby St. Mark's Episcopal Church to protest Koonce's dismissal. Meanwhile, the local NAACP chapter questioned whether Koonce's two assistants, Marcellars Mason and Karen Williamson, had been the victims of discrimination. After all, Koonce and area assistant superintendent Ronnie Veselka, another casualty of the upheaval, had been promised new assignments in the district, while the two black assistant principals were told to look for new jobs.

Koonce had succeeded founding principal Kaye Stripling, who left for a promotion within the school district at the beginning of the spring semester of the school's first year. Koonce came from Oak Forest Elementary with a reputation as one of the best elementary school principals in HISD. But after two years, many Rice School parents turned against her because she had not found a way to enforce consistency on the quality of teaching at the school. A group of influential West U and Rice University parents complained to trustee Don McAdams, and he in turn took the concerns to Superintendent Rod Paige. The result was the purge of the management team shortly after school let out for the summer.

Koonce was initially told by assistant superintendent Susan Sclafani -- widely considered to be the power behind Superintendent Paige -- that she should dismiss the two assistant principals but that she would be returning for the fall semester. After Koonce told Mason and Williamson they were being terminated without explanation, the NAACP began organizing a protest. At that point, Veselka announced that Koonce too was being removed, and Veselka himself was soon reassigned.

Although Sclafani says that the decision had already been made to bring in a new principal, others inside HISD believe Koonce was added to the purge to defuse the charge of racism.

The upheaval is just the latest chapter in the history of a school that has known little peace since its inception. In fact, even before a brick had been laid, the Rice School was the object of a tug of war between conflicting interests at multiple levels. The principals of other HISD schools in the area saw the Rice School as a threat to absorb their best students, most active parents and most gifted instructors. And once the school doors opened, affluent white parents from West U and their lower-income minority counterparts from elsewhere across the city came to view themselves as locked in a struggle for the soul of the Rice School.

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