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.

Students are admitted via a racially balanced lottery that allocates roughly a third of the slots to West U overflow students and two-thirds to applicants from other parts of the district, with priority given to black and Hispanic children. Last year, the student body was approximately 37 percent Anglo, 33 percent African-American, 27 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian-American. Since there are no academic admission standards, the formula guarantees a combustible mix of affluent whites and largely middle- or low-income blacks and Hispanics with an extremely wide range of abilities.

Richard Tapia, a professor of computational science and applied mathematics at Rice University, has a daughter who attends the Rice School and has directed his graduate students in tutoring students there. Tapia says the gulf between affluent, privileged children who lived near the school and cross-town kids from low-income neighborhoods was too hard to bridge in mixed-age classes.

"It wasn't just diversity in terms of ethnic and racial differences," says Tapia. "All of a sudden, the differences were greatly magnified by the parts of town they came from. That's what was hard to handle."

Koonce, the recently ousted principal, agrees that building a sense of community at the school is the number one challenge for her successor.

"Over the time that I was principal, I met small groups of people from all factions, and no one in that school feels as if their group belongs -- across the board," says Koonce. "That's because of a lack of sense of community on campus. The school can't reach its goals until that sense of community is there."

In any case, once again, as in its tumultuous first year, the Rice School is without a permanent head and deluged by questions from concerned parents. There are early indications of retrenching: In response to criticism that the mixed-age format created unmanageable classes, kindergartners will be separated from first- and second-graders this fall, and third grade will also be set off by itself.

Meanwhile, HISD has moved oversight of the school from the district's Central District division, where it operated on a regular fixed-formula budget based on its number of students, to the Alternative District, where it will receive funding based on its special needs. Now Rice shares the same status as the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and district academies for troubled youth.

Debbie Singleton, the new deputy superintendent of the Alternative District, is convinced that parents who've pulled their children out of the school can be coaxed back.

"We're putting behind us what has happened and moving forward," says an upbeat Singleton, "because I can't even explain what has happened."

To figure that out, you have to go back to the origins of the Rice School, and begin untangling the contradictions that cumulatively have made it a school that is, aside from its unique building, largely unrecognizable to many of its early planners.

Business consultant Don McAdams was elected to outgoing trustee Brad Raffle's southwest district board seat in November of 1989, just in time to meet the gestating Rice School as it emerged from preliminary planning stages.

At that time, the school was still being planned as a regular elementary school to ease overcrowding at the elementaries serving West University and nearby neighborhoods. West University Elementary had become a prototype of how the increasingly minority district could maintain the allegiance of affluent whites. Over the previous two decades, parents in the burgeoning bedroom community had helped reshape a deteriorating school into a community focal point that kept many West U children in public school through the fifth grade. It had actually become a selling point for parents moving into the area. The same process was reshaping Poe Elementary in the Rice Village area and nearby Pershing Middle School, although HISD middle schools remain a tough sell for parents with other options.

When the HISD board sought voter approval for its massive reconstruction program called "Operation Renewal" in 1989, West U voters were wooed with the promise of a new school. To entice West U parents away from their beloved elementary, reasoned then-superintendent Raymond, the school would need some extra cachet, and Raymond's administration pursued the partnership with Rice University. The Rice label sold like Lacoste.

Because Rice University's education department had no experience with younger children, the school would have to include kindergarten through eighth grade to become an effective lab school for university educators. And when it was expanded to be both an elementary and middle school, it required more land, more facilities, more teachers and a lot more money. In order to get board approval, it would have to be opened to students outside the area.

Just finding the land was no easy task. Negotiations for a site on Brompton fell through, and an ill-conceived attempt to buy land in Bellaire at Newcastle and Bissonnet collapsed. Bellaire officials and parents protested when they learned they would lose a prime chunk of taxable property without being zoned into the attendance area for the new school.

Raymond eventually found a parcel on North Braeswood that met minimal expectations, and planning now began moving forward. At that point, the initial goals had been formulated by a joint committee of HISD administrators, including HISD administrators Sclafani, Stripling and Veselka and a group of Rice education specialists.

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