Class War

Betsy Frost is a River Oaks resident whose husband and father-in-law both attended River Oaks Elementary. But much has changed in the Houston Independent School District since then, and now Frost can't automatically send her two children to the school that bears the name of their neighborhood and which, as it happens, is the closest elementary to their home.

Frost doesn't think that's fair, and neither does Lynn Swanson, another River Oaks resident with a kindergarten-age child. Last fall, the two mothers began discussing the situation after a neighborhood crime watch meeting. Out of that discussion has grown a nasty little conflict that's been portrayed as a case of the wealthy and privileged exerting their clout over the less powerful -- although in reality it's not nearly that simple.

While River Oaks Elementary may be in the River Oaks neighborhood, it is not, in educational parlance, a "neighborhood" school. Children from the neighborhood could freely attend River Oaks until nine years ago, but most did not, and HISD transformed it solely into a Vanguard program school for "gifted and talented" students. Now, the school's 500 students hail from across HISDand must apply and pass tests to be admitted. River Oaks children who don't qualify must attend other schools a short drive away, or attend private schools.

River Oaks, the school, has the same cachet in scholastics that River Oaks, the neighborhood, has among residential areas. Located on 13 tree-studded acres at the corner of San Felipe and Kirby, the school's physical plant fits in well with its old-money surroundings. With its slate roof and copula topped by a weather vane, the putty-colored stucco main building, built in 1929, is stately and dignified.

Inside its classrooms, highly motivated students who represent a diverse sampling of the city's demographic mix write booklets and newspapers brimming with inventiveness and self-esteem. They study science with a specialized teacher in a well-equipped lab and take Spanish from another specialist, something they can't get in many other schools.

Their parents are among the most active school volunteers in HISD, tutoring in the afternoons and working on the grounds on Saturday mornings. When the annual fall carnival is held, the parent turnout approaches 100 percent. Last year the PTO raised $25,000 for computers.

River Oaks Elementary has succeeded so well that HISD has named it as one of its 10 "exemplary" schools out of the 230 in the district, and the state has declared it one of 33 "mentor" schools for others to emulate. Hundreds of visitors annually tour the school, looking for ideas to take home.

So it should come as no surprise that parents who live in River Oaks might want their children to attend this hugely successful public school to which they could conveniently and safely walk. But the move to open River Oaks Elementary to neighborhood children that began with Frost and Swanson has encountered fierce opposition from Vanguard school parents, and the two women and other River Oaks residents pushing for change have found themselves demonized as greedy rich folks trying to elbow in on a good thing.

Ron Franklin, the school trustee from River Oaks who proposed to rewrite the school's admission policy (and who has an elementary-age child), accuses the Vanguard parents, a great many of whom are successful, middle-class professionals (the largest contingent of school parents resides in West University Place and nearby neighborhoods), of having a "them versus us" mentality. Almost all other Vanguard elementary schools have a neighborhood component, he points out.

"To me it is a reasonable, accessible school that enjoys a sense of community," Franklin says. "If this wasn't River Oaks, if it was Garden Oaks or any other 'Oaks,' I think it would have happened without much controversy."

Maybe. But the school parents insist they would have fought such changes regardless of where the school was situated. And they say there's a reason why the district's only all-Vanguard elementary is situated in River Oaks. For the last 25 years, as HISD's overall population has taken on a decidedly Hispanic and African-American cast, the neighborhood has been sending most of its children to costly private schools. When River Oaks was made into an all-Vanguard school in 1986, the neighborhood supplied only 60 students. All things being equal, the Vanguard parents point out, the children of River Oaks residents are given admission preference if they qualify for the school.

Betsy Frost and Lynn Swanson initially figured they had one bit of demographic evidence on their side -- that is, they had been told by real-estate brokers that half of the homes in River Oaks had changed hands since the school went all-Vanguard. As their first order of business, they drove through the neighborhood looking for swing sets and tricycles that might indicate where other parents of young children lived.

Just before Christmas they and a group of volunteers delivered 1,800 survey forms to see how many neighborhood parents would like the option of sending them to River Oaks Elementary. The survey showed that parents might send as many as 80 children. Swanson and Frost figured that they might have enough students to make up a kindergarten class and a first-grade class. The classes could be phased in and gradually, they envisioned, a stronger neighborhood presence would be felt.

Swanson first met with River Oaks Principal Michele Pola. Pola, who has been principal since 1989, had annually handled inquiries from the neighborhood, but this was the first time she had dealt with organized interest.

"We were gathering information," Swanson says, "and we said we believe the demographics have changed. We asked HISD to look at it. Our solution was to go back to the old attendance zone."

What Swanson wasn't prepared for was the backlash of anger from the school parents.

Swanson sent her survey data to Franklin, who asked district administrators to study the issue. Before long the administration had informed the school's Site Decision Making committee of parents and teachers that the matter would be placed on the board agenda on March 16.

That meeting drew a group of angry school parents who protested that Franklin and a group of privileged parents were going to run roughshod over a program they had labored for years to improve. One rumor suggested that the survey was paid for by real-estate interests looking to enhance house prices in River Oaks. Another suggested that the River Oaks parents wanted their children enrolled in the Vanguard classes without taking admissions tests, and that the administration was backing them. Neither rumor was true, but the suspicions drove some of the parents ballistic with anger, says the president of the River Oaks PTO, Tanya Emmons.

"We were told time and again by board members that it was a done deal," Emmons says. "That was why there was such an uproar."

Emmons believes the neighborhood simply doesn't have the numbers to justify disrupting a successful school. Public schools have always been a fallback position for River Oaks parents, she says.

And while the change apparently is not quite a done deal, the two sides will begin working on a task force to explore the complexities of creating a neighborhood component for only a few students. It bodes to be a complicated task. In every school in which Vanguard and neighborhood programs are combined, the Vanguard program is the smaller element, comprising from 10 percent to 40 percent of the students.

The neighborhood parents insist that they don't want to injure the Vanguard program. "If there is a special program funded by Vanguard funds," says Swanson, "we are not requesting to be a part of that." They just want a neighborhood component added to the school. And they hope to have it by next fall.

One of the most outspoken River Oaks residents in favor of adding a neighborhood component hardly fits the River Oaks stereotype. Roberto Gonzales moved to River Oaks a year ago from Meyerland. He found a bargain house, a "fixer-upper" owned by a woman who had lived there since 1936. He knows of four other Hispanic families in his block.

His first home in Houston was public housing, he says. Now he runs three businesses, one of which runs job-training programs for dropouts for HISD. Gonzales has worked on Chamber of Commerce educational task forces and served on the Site Decision Making committee at Poe Elementary, where two of his children attend. But he has a third child who is two, and he likes the idea of her attending a neighborhood school.

"They [the school parents] like to say, if it's not broken, don't fix it," says Gonzales, "but from our standpoint it is broken. From our standpoint we don't have a good alternative."

Like the parents on the other side, Gonzales sees the issue as a simple one: "The demographics have changed. There's interest. Where everything gets confused is our perceived wealth and power. But frankly, there shouldn't be different standards. I have never asked HISD for anything special other than to support the neighborhood concept.

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