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By Craig Malisow
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She began asking troubling questions, says Tapia: " 'Dad, am I Hispanic? Am I white? I'm almost forced to make a choice. I have to identify with one particular group. Why can't I identify with both groups?' "
"She chose," says Tapia, "and she chose to be Hispanic."
Ellen Lee retired this summer after 20 years of teaching, the last three spent as a sixth-grade reading instructor at the Rice School. Despite all the criticism of the experiment, Lee estimates less than 10 percent of the faculty felt there were serious problems at the school. What the Rice School needs to succeed, she says, is stability and the chance to make its programs work.
"I really felt the basic philosophy of the school was a good one, and the majority of the teachers were very creative and talented," says Lee. "Time was the enemy. We just didn't have the time we needed to pull things together."
Another teacher, who has since moved on to a position at Rice University, agrees that under the weight of so many agendas, instructors couldn't adequately address the needs of the wide range of students they faced every morning. And the instability at the top took its toll.
"Continuity with whoever's in charge is the most important factor," says this teacher.
The person in the best position to ensure that continuity is Susan Sclafani, who runs the day-to-day administration of HISD. A thin, driven women who rarely leaves her office before early evening and is often at work on weekends, Sclafani has been a power in the district under superintendents Raymond, Petruzielo and Paige. She was Raymond's point person in forging the partnership with Rice University that led to the creation of the Rice School, and is now managing a belated drive to revive that reltionship and reverse the perception in some quarters that the Rice School is irremediably damaged.
The first major restructuring took place earlier in the month when the school was moved under the aegis of the Alternative District division. Meanwhile, a task force of school parents, faculty and HISD administrators is interviewing candidates for the principal's job, which will likely be filled early this fall. Upcoming discussions are planned with a similar task force at Rice University over its involvement with the school, which according to both sides has dwindled to almost nothing in the past year.
Sclafani admits that mistakes were made during the three-year evolution of the school, but she continues to defend its structure as an open-admission laboratory for pioneering new teaching methods for the entire district. She does not favor entrance testing to provide a more academically level student body.
"We don't only work with people who are very smart, or who have very good grades," she says. "We work with lots of different people, and our students will work and live with a variety of people."
Sclafani pauses. "There's no reason to segregate children."
What is needed now for the school to succeed, she says, is patience by parents while the most recent changes take hold, strong leadership inside the school, and a realistic operating agreement between the district and the university.
"We still firmly believe that we can take the children who come to the Rice School and have them come out at the same levels of performance as the children at St. John's," says Sclafani. "There will be nothing that will convince [me] that that's not possible."
Peggy and Mike Rice have decided they couldn't wait. Their son Peter is leaving Rice to start sixth grade at St. John's, joining an older brother already attending the private school. Their second-grader, John, will attend a private Montessori school.
"You've had your kid in the school for two years, and you begin to get pissed off," says Mike Rice. "You can experiment for a year, but you can't experiment for five years and have your child there. That's almost half of his pre-college education, and you don't want to find out that the experiment didn't work."
A conflicted Richard Tapia also considered pulling his daughter out of the Rice School. He waited until just before classes resumed this week to decide that she would return for her eighth-grade year. For Tapia, the decision came down to his desire for stability for his daughter.
Gena Sylvester is also sticking with the Rice School, and is a member of the selection committee interviewing candidates for principal. At times she has doubts, but as with many of the remaining West U parents at Rice, a single great teacher can make the difference between leaving and staying.
"I don't know if I'm sacrificing my child's education in the process," worries Sylvester. "I guess I'll find out. Right now he's got a fabulous teacher, and if he didn't have [her] I probably would have moved him."
There are many other parents like Tapia and Sylvester who are keeping faith with the original promise of the Rice School. Their hope, of course, is that HISD and Rice University will do the same.