By Chris Lane
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By Aaron Reiss
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Adds Kennedy: "I believe that we should not give up on the school at this stage, but there are people who feel we should."
For Nancy Ross, a southeast Houston resident and an informal leader of the black parents at the Rice School through its first three years, the school offered an oasis of security for her son Jason, who attended eighth grade there in the '94-'95 term, and daughter Franchella, who graduated last spring. Both are now enrolled at Bellaire High School. To Ross, West U parents who didn't like the education their children were receiving had the luxury of retreating to other secure neighborhood schools like West University Elementary, or to private schools.
She did not.
"Frankly, I'm sure a lot of inner-city parents would probably pull their kids out if they had a different choice," says Ross. Her children's home school was Attucks Middle School, where, says Ross, "my kids might get stabbed, might be shot."
If the kids were safe, Ross felt she could devote her energy toward getting them quality education through "volunteering, being at the school all the time, interacting with the teachers. If something was wrong or if my child had been disenfranchised, I was up there immediately, talking to the teachers."
Ross quickly came to believe that she and fellow black parents were in a one-sided fight, with all the cards stacked in favor of the West University parents.
"Everybody wanted to believe it was their school," says Ross. "But the black parents felt isolated, [like] they weren't welcomed."
Ross remembers the subtle ways in which the affluent contingent of the school set the agenda, starting with a simple matter of uniforms.
"Initially we were supposed to wear blue jeans and white T-shirts," she recalls with a laugh. But when she took her children to softball and soccer leagues in the area, Ross heard other parents expressing a preference for the khakis and polo shirts worn by students at St. John's, an exclusive private school near River Oaks. "And when school opened," recalls Ross, "sure enough, it was red, white and blue polo shirts and khaki pants."
From the perspective of Drs. Mike and Peggy Goetz Rice, both West U physicians, the allure of Rice was very different.
"What was being sold was that it was going to be a break-the-mold kind of school," says Peggy, "that they were going to throw out the HISD mold, be creative in partnership with Rice University, and it was going to be a place where every kid could just go at their own pace academically, be the best it could possibly be."
For Gena Sylvester, a single mother from West U and college student who became one of the most active volunteer parents at the school, the appeal was something else again.
"I had a great school where he was," she says of her son Jonathan's berth at West University Elementary. "If I'd wanted my child to be in a classroom that was mostly white, I could have left my child at West U. But that's not what I wanted. I wanted him to mix with kids from other neighborhoods and see what other kids experience, 'cause that's the world he's going to be living in."
But Sylvester found that West U parent volunteers like herself were resented by minority parents, who viewed them as trying to take over the Rice School. "Every time we have a big meeting," she says, "they're asking, 'When are they going to stop the lottery from West U?' " The notion of ending the guaranteed access for West U parents to the school that was originally designed for their children galls Sylvester.
"We're the parents that handle all of the fundraising and all of the projects in that school. Our tax dollars go for that school, and we pay for their children to have uniforms when they can't afford it. There's a lot we do for their children, and they just resent the hell out of us."
That's just the kind of observation that riles Nancy Ross, who views the issue as one of privileged parents trying to guide the school toward elitism, and even an entrance exam.
"They've been trying to get that going for some time," Ross says. "If they get admissions standards at the school, they're going to destroy the idea that you could bring all kids from all sections and teach them at their own level."
Rice professor Richard Tapia cites the diversity of the student body as the best thing about his daughter Becky's education at the Rice School.
"She's come back and asked me lots of questions about people who live maybe way on the other side of town," explains Tapia. "Her best friend lives over at the old Mercado del Sol. Becky never knew people that lived over there. We live in the southwest. She has African-American friends, white friends."
Tapia says his daughter seemed to do very well in the fifth grade -- "She was the happiest kid in the world then" -- but after she entered the seventh grade, even the carefully arranged diversity of the Rice School began fragmenting.