By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Marvin Hoffman recalls giving David Cohen a ride to the airport in the fall of 1993 after a presentation to a committee planning what would become the Rice School. Cohen, an expert on experimental schools from the University of Michigan, was the latest in a string of high-powered specialists brought in to help brainstorm the project, which was being developed as a partnership between Rice University and the Houston Independent School District.
Joan Raymond, who by that time had been forced out as HISD's superintendent by a board fed up with her abrasive style of management, had thought up the project as a solution to overcrowding at West University Elementary and other nearby schools. The district had been fighting a losing battle to keep affluent white parents and their children from defecting to private schools and stripping the already patchy veneer of integration from the sprawling district.
"On the way back to the airport, I was still at my most optimistic and most enthusiastic phase," says Hoffman, who was then a professor of clinical education at Rice University and a coordinator of the Writers in the Schools program for HISD.
A veteran of assignments at the T.H. Rogers School and Jones High in HISD, Hoffman is an advocate of teaching techniques that empower students and allow them a measure of control in structuring their own curriculum and learning environments. The promise of the Rice School to let students learn at their own pace in mixed-age classes had attracted his interest. Indeed, Hoffman became one of the early Rice University representatives on the planning team, and one of the most enthusiastic. As the planning moved toward reality, the Rice School was conceived as a showcase, both for the prestigious private university and the beleaguered public school district, one that would offer state-of-the-art instructional methods on a state-of-the-art campus.
But back in 1992, two years before the doors would swing open at the Rice School, David Cohen was having none of Hoffman's pie-eyed optimism.
"He said," recalls Hoffman, " 'You know, Marvin, ventures like this seldom succeed.'
"I was so devastated and really angry with him at that point. I didn't want to hear that," says Hoffman with the resignation of hindsight. "But God, he was right."
At least so far. When the 1997-'98 school year opened this week, the Rice School was under its fourth principal in as many years. Few of the teachers who helped launch the school in 1994 were still on hand. Affluent parents have pulled their children from the school in droves, with some complaining that its freeform "integrated" curriculum neglected basic reading and math skills. And just a few weeks ago, the Texas Education Agency ranked the Rice School the only "low performing" elementary in the width and breadth of HISD. While that rating is somewhat misleading, based as it is on the performance of the school's economically disadvantaged students on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, it was still a major embarrassment for the school district and served to underscore the gap between the children of affluent white parents and minority students that the Rice School was designed to bridge.
As with most issues of public education, there is no easy explanation for what went wrong at the Rice School. Certainly, the initial, idealized vision of the school as a technology-rich, individualized learning environment for average students quickly dimmed when confronted by the realities of a giant urban school district. Divisions of race and class, and the often-conflicting demands of the larger community, all contributed to the turmoil that marred the school's first three years. Inside politics at HISD also played a big part. But most of all, the Rice School has been burdened with unreasonable expectations that it would fulfill its promises to parents from day one.
"This is a guinea pig school," says businessman Malcolm Waddell, who has two daughters at the Rice School. "You needed to be aware of that from the beginning."
By the time it opened after five years of planning, there was nothing simple about the Rice School, or the Rice School/La Escuela Rice, as it is formally named. First proposed as a release valve to absorb excess West University children from crowded area elementaries, it had mushroomed into an incredibly complex educational experiment that aspired to be all things to all parties with an interest in its success.
West U parents would be wooed with its heavily promoted ties to Rice University and innovative multi-age classes grouped in "clusters" of classrooms, where children could progress at their own rate and even tutor each other while surrounded by more computers than a private school. Peering from the other side of the tracks, inner-city parents saw a shimmering, safe harbor where their kids would be secure from the violence permeating the hallways and yards of their own neighborhood schools. For Rice University, it offered the opportunity to strengthen the college's ties to the community and see educational theory put into practice.
"There were high expectations -- admittedly unreasonable expectations," acknowledges HISD trustee Don McAdams, whose district includes the area and who has championed the school from the drawing board to the school board.
For what now seems a brief, glorious season, the school seemed to meet all of them. Parents from virtually every corner of the district thronged to the planning and recruitment meetings for the new facility. When it came time for the lottery to select the student body, more than 7,000 parents from across HISD tried to enroll their children for the 1,200 slots. Rice University professors and lawyers and doctors stood in line to put their children on the list for the all too few openings. District master teachers, including a talented cadre of bilingual instructors, jockeyed for position on the Rice School faculty.
The month the school opened, Texas Monthly crowned then-principal Kaye Stripling as one of its 20 most influential Texans for creating an oasis in a public education wasteland. The following summer, Rice University's Sallyport magazine headlined a glowing piece on the university's project "Success on Seuss Drive."
The rave notices were premature, to say the least.
"I don't want to say the ball game is over, because there's always the possibility of recouping," says Marvin Hoffman, now based in Chicago. "But I think so much of the initial momentum and excitement is long lost and so many good people got chewed up in the process. A lot of good teachers left. A lot of parents pulled their kids out of the school. It's really tragic to contemplate."
Sandra Satterwhite is guiding her not totally welcome guest on a walk through the imposing Rice School building, three weeks before the start of the school's fourth year. A 30-year HISD veteran on loan from Superintendent Rod Paige's office, Satterwhite on this day is still exploring the turf of her new assignment as acting principal. The school was hardly ready for a public viewing, what with classrooms in disarray and computer technicians scurrying to rewire rooms and establish circuits.
The $11 million campus, located west of Kirby Drive off North Braeswood, is an eye opener for a first-time visitor. In contrast to the rigidly institutionalized, boxed-in layout of most HISD schools, the Rice School is a marvel of light and space, projecting a sense of openness and possibility. On its two floors, the clusters of five classrooms are each arranged around a communal space -- almost like a mini-town square -- where the mixed-age classes congregate when not in more traditional sessions with teachers. The centerpiece of the school is its library, which beckons to almost all points in the building. Banners are everywhere in the hallways, urging "Self Respect," "Honesty" and "Diversity." Also everywhere is evidence of the $2 million worth of computer technology donated by Compaq, the screen savers on the ubiquitous terminals blinking slowly like drowsy electronic first-graders.
As Satterwhite leads her visitor through the computer lab, the words of a now-disillusioned planner from Rice University's education department echo loud and clear.
"Look around you when you're there," said this educator. "You'll see where they spent all the money." The comment, coming from a skeptic of the notion that fancy computers somehow guarantee a better education, was not meant as a compliment.
Satterwhite found herself at the helm of the Rice School after district administrators ousted principal Sharon Koonce and her two assistant principals in June. That action provoked the largest gathering of parents in the school's short history at nearby St. Mark's Episcopal Church to protest Koonce's dismissal. Meanwhile, the local NAACP chapter questioned whether Koonce's two assistants, Marcellars Mason and Karen Williamson, had been the victims of discrimination. After all, Koonce and area assistant superintendent Ronnie Veselka, another casualty of the upheaval, had been promised new assignments in the district, while the two black assistant principals were told to look for new jobs.
Koonce had succeeded founding principal Kaye Stripling, who left for a promotion within the school district at the beginning of the spring semester of the school's first year. Koonce came from Oak Forest Elementary with a reputation as one of the best elementary school principals in HISD. But after two years, many Rice School parents turned against her because she had not found a way to enforce consistency on the quality of teaching at the school. A group of influential West U and Rice University parents complained to trustee Don McAdams, and he in turn took the concerns to Superintendent Rod Paige. The result was the purge of the management team shortly after school let out for the summer.
Koonce was initially told by assistant superintendent Susan Sclafani -- widely considered to be the power behind Superintendent Paige -- that she should dismiss the two assistant principals but that she would be returning for the fall semester. After Koonce told Mason and Williamson they were being terminated without explanation, the NAACP began organizing a protest. At that point, Veselka announced that Koonce too was being removed, and Veselka himself was soon reassigned.
Although Sclafani says that the decision had already been made to bring in a new principal, others inside HISD believe Koonce was added to the purge to defuse the charge of racism.
The upheaval is just the latest chapter in the history of a school that has known little peace since its inception. In fact, even before a brick had been laid, the Rice School was the object of a tug of war between conflicting interests at multiple levels. The principals of other HISD schools in the area saw the Rice School as a threat to absorb their best students, most active parents and most gifted instructors. And once the school doors opened, affluent white parents from West U and their lower-income minority counterparts from elsewhere across the city came to view themselves as locked in a struggle for the soul of the Rice School.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.