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.

The basic concepts were these: The school would have a strong partnership with Rice University. It would offer dual language instruction, in which all children would learn English and Spanish. The curriculum would be linked by mathematics as a thread throughout all studies. The campus would be wired with the latest in computer resources, and it would have multigrade classes where students would learn together at their own speed and assist each other. And the school would be a center for the professional development of HISD teachers, so that innovations pioneered at the school could be disseminated throughout the district. The idea was that teachers -- and even students -- would flow in and out of the school, swapping and sharing ideas.

Since a middle school component had been added for Rice and embraced by McAdams as a way to address middle school crowding in the southwest, the HISD board had to be sold on the funding.

"The other board members began saying, 'What's in it for me?' " remembers McAdams. "It had to be ethnically balanced. Commitments were made that it would be diverse, and serve the entire district."

To accommodate those aims, the system was devised whereby about a third of the 1,200 students would come from West U overflow, with roughly 70 openings set aside for the children of Rice University faculty and staff. The rest would be drawn from citywide applications, with race and gender weighted to guarantee ethnic representation proportionate to that of the city's.

"If you're going to dream, why not dream big?" says McAdams of the seemingly endless agendas heaped on the Rice School. "You had an opportunity to actually pull all this off. I don't think at this point it's clear that we can't. And I think we have pulled off some of it." He pauses. "But it's also true we had no choice on some of it."

The first principal of the Rice School was chosen through a bit of happenstance: She and then-superintendent Frank Petruzielo couldn't stand each other. In early 1994, some six months before the Rice School opened, Petruzielo was balking at hiring a principal for financial reasons. The superintendent, who had just pushed through a 32 percent tax increase, was quibbling over a $40,000 allocation to bring a principal on board early.

Kaye Stripling was a popular veteran of the HISD bureaucracy. Texas folksy, with a deep drawl and self-assured manner that seems to say I know where all the bodies are buried, Stripling had become entangled in one of the district's high-profile scandals of the last decade -- the manipulation of the alternative certification program to sign up blatantly unqualified instructors. Stripling had supervised the woman at the heart of the accusations, Delia Stafford.

Stripling had always been a good HISD soldier. But when the district hired a law firm to investigate the alternative certification program, she told investigators that Petruzielo's loose management made the abuses possible, and that she had warned him about the problems and was ignored.

An outraged Petruzielo wanted to fire Stripling, according to HISD sources, but because of her popularity within the district bureaucracy couldn't muster the board votes to do it. So the superintendent did the next best thing: He transferred Stripling from her post as a district superintendent, made her an assistant superintendent for professional development, and then gave her nothing to do. In that position, Stripling sat in on the early planning for the Rice School. McAdams says that when he continued to press for assignment of a principal, Petruzielo suggested that Stripling be dispatched to get the Rice School running.

"The expectation was clear in Kaye's mind, my mind, everybody else's mind, that Kaye was not going there for a career move," says McAdams, who expected her to stay for a year, perhaps two at most, before a national search netted a permanent head for the school.

At the same time, the alternative certification scandal resulted in Stripling being reprimanded, along with a handful of other administrators. She also lost the title of assistant superintendent for professional development that she had taken with her to the Rice School, a slap that Stripling absorbed without any public complaint. To this day, no parent interviewed for this story was aware that Stripling came to the Rice School under a cloud.

The school opened with its share of predictable snafus: There was a shortage of employee parking space, student busing arrangements were in disarray and traffic direction at the awkward North Braeswood entrance to the campus proved nettlesome. But the feeling was that the kinks in the operation were minor and would smooth out as the school year progressed. So no one was prepared when a shaken Stripling appeared at a parent-faculty meeting at the school that February and announced she would be leaving the Rice School to become HISD's southwest district superintendent.

For an experimental school staffed by Stripling's handpicked instructors -- one that was attempting to implement so many educational concepts on a campus already charged by class and racial differences -- the principal's departure was seen by parents and teachers as a personal and administrative betrayal.

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