Success on Seuss Drive
The Rice School/La Escuela Rice melds efforts by Rice University and the Houston Independent School District to bring innovative educational programs to public education.
Source: Sallyport, Summer 1995 By David D. Medina
More than eighty teachers gathered on the school stage and invited the audience to sing along. They sang for The Rice School/La Escuela Rice, a new kindergarten through eighth grade school unlike any other in Houston, and the words of hope, joy, and community brought tears to the eyes of many of the parents assembled in the auditorium. With its progressive way of teaching, innovative curriculum, and atmosphere that fosters learning regardless of a student's social or cultural background, The Rice School sought no less than to prove that a public school could provide education of the highest quality.
The Rice School opened its doors in August 1994. At the completion of its first academic year, the school-despite some snags-is well on the way to achieving its goal. "The school has gotten off to an excellent start and is destined to be one of the best schools in the United States," says Don McAdams, a board member for the Houston Independent School District.
According to McAdams, a large part of the school's strength can be attributed to its association with Rice University. This is the first time in HISD history that a university has been so intimately involved in creating a model school. Rice faculty and staff members have taken an active part in the school since its inception, partaking in the design of the building, contributing to the development of the curriculum and the honor code, teaching special classes, and holding summer workshops for teachers. "I think having Rice faculty members and graduate students passing through the school on a daily basis and interacting with the teachers will make the school an extraordinarily exciting place for children," says McAdams.
Likewise, the school offers Rice a chance to explore different teaching methods. "The school is a laboratory for the development and testing of educational innovations," says Tony Gorry, vice president for Graduate Studies, Research and Information Technology at Rice University. "Already the teachers and students are immersed in important educational experiments-multiage grouping, dual language, and intensive use of technology-that can have broad ramifications for public education in Houston and beyond."
The symbiotic relationship between the two schools began when HISD invited Rice to help develop a child-centered school. Hundreds of parents, teachers, and community leaders took part in deciding almost every detail of the school. They agreed that all students should wear uniforms of khaki pants and polo-type shirts in red, blue, or white. They came up with a list of tenets for the school, including an honor code and the idea that parents, teachers, students, and administrators should make decisions together regarding school issues.
Even before the educational plans for the new school were fully in place, a core group of HISD teachers and parents worked with architects to design a school facility that would be built around the idea of creating communities of learners in which the teachers as well as the children would partake in learning. Chosen for the project were three Rice graduates who are partners in Taft Architects: John Casbarian '69, Danny Samuels '71, and Robert Timme '69. The three interviewed more than one hundred people to get a sense of the kind of architectural features that would augment the educational experience. "It was clear that because of the large size of the building, it needed to provide a sense of community to the users," says Casbarian. "So we organized the public functions-the gymnasium, the cafeteria, and the auditorium-around a kind of public space just like a piazza in a little village, and within that piazza we placed the library."
The handsome building, which will be featured in the August 1995 issue of Architecture, cost about $11 million-no more than other HISD schools. The Rice School stands on a ten-acre site at the corner of North Braeswood and Kirby Drive on a curving street named Seuss Drive. Palm trees and multi-colored flowers planted by the students line the sidewalks. Inside, skylights flood the halls with sunshine to create a lively atmosphere.
The school's physical structure embodies elements of the educational philosophies that animate its curriculum. One of these elements is multiage teaching, which places students from different grades in the same classroom. Kindergartners and first and second graders learn together; third, fourth, and fifth graders together; and sixth, seventh, and eighth graders together. This grouping allows students to progress at their own pace and permits teachers to collaborate on interdisciplinary lessons. To facilitate multiage teaching, the architects created clusters of five classrooms called pods that open to common spaces where classes can meet to perform skits or students can gather for independent projects. Corridors, says Samuels, essentially were turned into meeting spaces to encourage the idea of learning by allowing students to become part of a larger community of learners.
Among the other innovations being implemented at the school is a dual language program. Unlike a bilingual program, in which the learning of Spanish tapers off as the student becomes proficient in English, the dual language program seeks to teach half of the courses in English and half in Spanish for the purpose of making all students completely bilingual. Every sign in the school is in English and Spanish, and even the school's full name emphasizes its commitment to a dual language mission.
Another innovation at The Rice School is that computers and other technology play a significant role in teaching students. The technology-rich environment being established at the school is due to the efforts of three Rice University members: Tony Gorry; Kevin Long, director of the Electronic Studio; and Leslie Miller, faculty fellow with Information Systems and Research. Gorry was instrumental in acquiring more than one thousand computers from Compaq Computer Corp. Gorry, Long, and Miller developed the OWLink distance learning project, which connects The Rice School with two other HISD campuses, Rice University, and two schools in the Rio Grande Valley. "The school will soon have an unparalleled concentration of computing-so much that it will be possible to implement an entirely new way of teaching that combines a focus on excellence with individual learning styles and abilities," says Gorry.
Mathematics is an important focus at the Rice School. Anne Papakonstantinou, executive director of the School Mathematics Project and clinical professor of education at Rice, is in the process of developing an innovative mathematics program. "We have long-term and short-term goals," Papakonstantinou says, "and since it's so difficult to radically change anything, we have to do it carefully." The mathematics program being developed by Papakonstantinou's team begins in K-6. The curriculum for these early grades is being designed to support a program that, in grades seven and eight, integrates algebra and geometry. Upon completion of the seventh- and eighth-grade sequence, students will receive high school credit in both subjects. Tutoring programs in mathematics will help insure that students understand the math being offered at The Rice School. Papakonstantinou will direct a summer mathematics camp for Rice School elementary students, and Richard Tapia, professor of computational and applied mathematics, has provided three of his graduate students to design and implement a tutorial program in mathematics. Tapia's program will involve numerous Rice undergraduate and graduate students.
To accommodate parents with busy schedules, a day care program and enrichment classes are offered after school. Called Falconest (the falcon is the school's mascot), the day care program is run by parents, and it employs Rice undergraduate students. The enrichment program offers a variety of fifty classes, including cooking, computer instruction, chess, karate, gymnastics, piano, and modern dance. "We have a quality program, and we will make it even better next year," says Falconest director Terrie Payne. Plans include improved supplies and equipment for the programs, further training for the staff, and increased scholarship assistance.
It is not surprising that seven thousand students applied for admission to the school. Since the institution was built in part to relieve the overcrowded schools of West University, about a third of the 1,275 spaces were filled by students from that area. Seventy-two spots were reserved for children of Rice University employees, and the remaining positions were filled through a district-wide lottery based on gender and ethnicity.
Students seem to be thriving on the school. "I think the school is really great," says ten-year-old Freddie Boas. "I like the diversity because a lot of my friends are white, a lot of my friends are Hispanic, and a lot of my friends are black." Kindergartner Nora Heibruegge likes the school because the cluster areas offer a chance to "make friends and stuff." Kevin Dancy, a sixth grader, says the school offers a wide variety of academic choices and has caring teachers. "If you turn in something and you didn't try very hard, the teachers will give it back to you and say try harder."
The Rice School was able to be very selective in choosing teachers. More than ten times the eighty who were needed applied. Juanita Soliz was attracted to the school because of its innovative programs, such as dual language and multiage teaching. The Rice School, Soliz says, offers a quality education that is not available at most schools. "I wish that every school would be like this," she says. "In every classroom, there is teaching and learning. These are not teachers who are here just because they have to be here."
Many of the teachers use an integrated curriculum approach in teaching a particular subject. A fragmented curriculum produces a fragmented body of knowledge, whereas an interdisciplinary process enables students to see connections between different subjects. For example, one K-2 class used mathematics, language arts, social skills, and home economics in making vegetable soup. Students drew the vegetables, bought them at a grocery store during a school field trip, and measured and cooked the food items back at school. Another class, in studying the Middle Ages, presented a full-scale feast. Students and parents who attended dressed in costumes of the period.
Teachers at The Rice School are also learners. Last summer several teachers attended the Mathematical and Computational Sciences Awareness Workshop at Rice University, sponsored by the Rice Center for Research on Parallel Computation and given by Richard Tapia. The programs, says Tapia, are designed to give teachers confidence in and understanding of the mathematical sciences so that they can guide and counsel with authority.
In addition, the school is being used as a training facility for HISD teachers. Rice University's School Mathematics Project, directed by R. O. Wells Jr., professor of mathematics and education at Rice, will conduct a summer program in mathematics and technology. The program, which was started in 1987 at Rice, was moved to the school because of the excellent technology available there. The Center for Research on Parallel Computation trains teachers in technology and addresses issues related to gender equity and underrepresented minorities in the sciences.
At The Rice School, teacher training extends beyond the classroom. This past spring break, Carlos Solis, a Rice ecology and evolutionary biology research associate, took a group of The Rice School teachers to Guatemala to learn about the rain forest. The twelve teachers stayed with local families for a week and enhanced their knowledge of Spanish, experienced another culture, and increased their appreciation of the role rain forests play in the earth's ecostructure. The trip was financed through a series of cake sales, car washes, and donations.
Rice University faculty and staff involvement in the school and the educational experience it offers has been important on many levels. Fred Rudolph, chairman of the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, oversees the science liaison between the university and The Rice School and directs summer science and technology institutes both for HISD science teachers and middle school girls from all over the city. Patricia Reiff, a professor of space physics and astronomy, has set up a weather station in the school. Ken Kennedy, director of the Center for Research on Parallel Computation, is on the Shared Decision Making Team. This team, composed of parents, teachers, administrators, and community leaders, rules on issues affecting the school. Beth Shapiro and Sandi Edwards, university librarians, are developing a resource center for teachers at The Rice School. The professional center will be a branch of Rice's Fondren Library. "We are collecting materials that the teachers can use in a number of ways-preparing for classes and shaping a curriculum or for professional development," says Edwards. "Even though this collection is built with teachers in mind, it is open to parents as well."
Parents have provided strong support for the school. On any school day, one can see mothers and fathers monitoring the cafeteria, issuing books at the library, helping teachers with administrative duties, going on field trips, and sponsoring luncheons for teachers. About five hundred parents signed up to volunteer this past year, and, unofficially, many others also gave their time and money. The Rice parent group has raised more than $35,000 for the school.
Even with all this support from Rice University and parents, the school on Seuss Drive, like any institution in its infancy, has faced growing pains in its first year. "This is a shakedown," says HISD board member Don McAdams. "In a normal school, there is a tremendous body of tradition. At The Rice School there is no tradition; everybody is new."
Complaints about the school range from not assigning enough homework to having a dual language program and multiage teaching. Many parents say the emphasis on Spanish is too heavy; others say not enough Spanish is being taught. Some parents are having a hard time understanding and accepting multiage grouping.
The heart of the problem, says McAdams, is that The Rice School is trying to handle several agendas at one time: building its relationship with Rice University, relieving the overcrowded schools in the West University area, and accepting a diverse group of students from around the city. "There's an assumption that this school was created only for the elite," says McAdams. "This is not the case, because the school does not have an admissions standard and has to deal with a full range of students, from very bright to average."
Trying to offer a number of innovative programs added to the challenge, McAdams says. Some parents had very high expectations and gave up too early in the school's progress. Any one of these programs, he explains, will take several years to be completely successful. About sixty students left the school either of their own volition or because they were asked to leave.
Malcolm Waddell '74 plans to keep his two children in The Rice School until they finish the eighth grade. "We expected problems. When you pioneer a new school from scratch, it's going to be rocky at first-not only for a few years, but for a number of years," says Waddell, an active school volunteer. "It really has been a miraculous year when you consider that you have a school with about fifteen hundred people [students and faculty], and so many things have gone well."
Lori Minzenmayer, a parent of two students, agrees that perhaps the school attempted to do too much in its first year, but she says that teachers are working hard to make the programs successful. "I know there are some parents who are unhappy, but I would encourage them to be in the classroom and be in the lunchroom and see what really is going on," she says.
HISD administrators are also aware of the challenges and are working with the school's faculty and staff toward solutions. Ronnie Veselka, an area superintendent, says that multiage grouping, the dual language program, the curriculum, the staffing, and the daily operation of the school will be reviewed this summer. "We believe that these are strong programs and that they need to be continued, and what we will do is make necessary modifications to improve them."
The school's Shared Decision Making Team has formed a task force consisting of teachers, parents, and Rice University employees to review the curriculum. The task force has surveyed parents and questioned teachers for suggestions on improving the different programs. The group expects to have some answers early enough in the summer to allow time to implement changes and provide for faculty and parent training.
Spanish teacher Steve Siebnaler admits that the dual language program can use some improvements. Siebnaler has been doing research and visiting dual language schools in an effort to develop a program that is suitable for The Rice School. "I want a program that is the best for the type of students we have at this school," he says. "I want a program that is well thought out, where teachers are trained properly." For the past year, Siebnaler has held free classes for teachers and parents in order to help them help students learn Spanish.
Another problem the school had to resolve was replacing much-admired principal Kaye Stripling, who was promoted to district superintendent early in the spring semester. Finding a replacement was not an easy task. The search committee, led by Ken Kennedy, advertised on a national scale and received eighty applications. Nine applicants were interviewed.
"We wanted someone who is a good educator and a good consensus builder, a person who has a vision for the school and who can integrate the visions of parents and teachers into a coherent whole," says Kennedy. "We wanted a person who can deal with a variety of conflicts, is committed to the basic principals of the school, and has the ego and strength to make decisions and carry them out."
The search committee found that person in Sharon Koonce, a principal at Houston's Oak Forest Elementary. Koonce has been a principal for the past thirteen years, has served as an assistant principal, and has taught special education and fifth grade. She also served as a coordinator for a Vanguard Program. For five consecutive years, Koonce received the highest rating for a principal in an assessment conducted by HISD teachers. "The school is fantastic," Koonce says. "It's unlike any school I have been at. The opportunities at The Rice School are endless. The school offers everything that an elementary and middle school can offer."
As the school prepares to open its doors for the second year, students from around Houston-blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians; boys and girls-will gather again to form a circle of friends and learn at the unusual school on Seuss Drive. As Tony Gorry says, "With sufficient imagination and leadership, The Rice School/La Escuela Rice can be the kind of breakthrough that we need in public education." It could be a circle that never ends, a circle that only gets bigger and bigger, like ripples in a pond, as its influence extends to all students in Houston and beyond.
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