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.

"Anyone knows you cannot launch this new ship without a working navigational system and then throw the captain overboard," says West U parent Peggy Goetz Rice, whose two younger sons attended the school. "I cannot begin to tell you how chaotic it felt walking into the building after that."

Adds another parent: "After that first year we were rearranging chairs on the Titanic."

Today, Stripling readily acknowledges that she felt she had let parents and teachers down by taking her promotion. But she describes herself as a "company person" and adds, "I'm going to do what my boss asked me to do."

Striping was succeeded temporarily by assistant principal Mary Jane Gomez, who finished out the year. A search committee then looked over national and local applicants, and selected Koonce to take over for the start of the '95-'96 school year.

But even before Stripling's departure, reality had begun intruding in some big ways on Seuss Drive. First to fall was the goal of bilingualism. Administrators found that there weren't enough bilingual Hispanic students at "La Escuela Rice" to frame a curriculum in which all students would learn both languages. Indeed, there weren't even enough such students to qualify the campus bilingual staff for stipends, a situation which resulted in the absurdity of teachers conducting bake sales to raise money for the stipends. Administrators also quickly realized that the school was unprepared for the special education students brought in from outside the West U area. And the Rice University educators assigned to the school seemed remote from classroom realities and the needs of the students.

It had also become apparent that some members of the Stripling-recruited teaching staff were not adapting well to the cluster formula, where five teachers worked in teams managing their classes together.

According to assistant district superintendent Sclafani, gifted teachers found it difficult to work in tandem. Stripling's original faculty were "a group of stars, and not all stars want to be team members," she says.

Sclafani says that plenty of learning has taken place at the school, and the main problem has been an inconsistency in the level of teaching.

"We created a model in which there was a great deal of autonomy in individual clusters, and within the individual teachers' classrooms, and what did not happen because of the changes in leadership was the consistent monitoring of all of that," she says.

And many teachers, Sclafani observes, were unfamiliar with computer technology but were expected to utilize upwards of 20 computers in a class. "I think we underestimated the amount of assistance those teachers needed in starting to get comfortable using that technology well."

As unsettling as the Texas Education Agency's recent rating of the Rice School might be from a public relations standpoint, the buzz that had previously gained momentum among the affluent parents of students at the school is far more damaging. As a result, some of the most active and enthusiastic parent volunteers when the school opened have transferred their children out of Rice.

One of them was HISD trustee Ron Franklin, who says his daughter learned plenty about the rain forest but not enough about math -- a claim one of the girl's teachers vehemently denies. But factual or apocryphal, Franklin's remark jibes with the experiences of parents like Alisa Starbird, a former parent leader at the school who has since taken her two boys elsewhere. Not only did fourth-grader Ryan tell Starbird he wanted to leave because he wasn't learning enough, she says one of his teachers told her that Ryan would learn little new the following year and would be spinning his wheels.

Most of the departing parents concede that some teachers at the school are brilliant, and that some of the teams working in tandem in the clusters succeeded in kindling educational magic for their children. But all maintain that the school is an educational Russian roulette. Some kids learned, but some stagnated and lost ground the longer they stayed.

The state ranking of the Rice School may be a statistical quirk, but it and the obvious erosion in parent support stung HISD administrators, and most particularly officials of Rice University who had lent their university's prestigious name, if not their full educational clout, to the project.

Ken Kennedy, director of Rice University's Center for Research on Parallel Computation, worked intensively with the school in its first two years and heads an ad hoc committee appointed by Rice President Malcolm Gillis to determine what has gone wrong with the offspring of the university's marriage to HISD. The committee's draft report faults both Rice and the district for failing to commit to a successful partnership, and recommends that the roles of the two parties at the Rice School be spelled out and strengthened in a comprehensive agreement. Kennedy says there is a sentiment at the university that if the partnership can't be done right, then Rice should get out.

"If Rice is not going to be able to go full blast in making this school a really big success," says Kennedy, "then it shouldn't be involved. Because if it's only halfway involved, we're almost certain to fail. And furthermore, get blamed for it."

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