As the 2018-19 school year ended on May 17, children in grades pre-kindergarten through second grade walked out of the doors of Rice Elementary School at 305 N. Dallas St, becoming the last students to attend classes in the building. Despite the abundance of rain in the area, a new pre-kindergarten through fourth grade campus is targeted to open in time for the upcoming school year in August.
“I’m excited about moving into the new school, but I’m going to miss all of the smells and sounds of this old building,” said Kari Robinson, second grade teacher. “I’ll never have another first or last day of school here.”
Kailey Hernandez, Rice Elementary student, reflected, “What I will miss most about the old school is all of the love that helped me grow while I was here.”
In 1875, the first school in Rice was a house where church services were held on Sundays. Students ranging from ages seven to 20 were taught by the town’s Presbyterian preacher and his wife. By the early 1900s, a $3,000 two-story schoolhouse was erected, followed by a brick building being built in 1912.
Due to low enrollment, Rice lost its high school accreditation by the mid-1950s, making the Class of 1956 the last class to graduate until the year 2000 when a high school campus was once again added to the growing district. But perhaps the district’s greatest difficulty occurred in the mid-70s, when the future of education in the community nearly came to an end completely.
According to Jerry Eddins, former Superintendent of Rice ISD, the Texas Education Agency issued a closure order for the district effective at the end of the 1976 school year due to declining enrollment and unsatisfactory building conditions. Three community leaders, John R. Stough, Joe B. Fortson, and James Fortson went to Austin and met with Dr. J.W. Edgar, the Commissioner of Education at the time, to appeal the decision to close the school. The district was given a one-year extension with the stipulation that a bond issue be passed and a new building be built within that year.
“Today many people don’t realize the amount of credit these three men should be given for saving the district,”Eddins said. “They came back from Austin and, along with the community, rolled up their sleeves to meet the demands of the commissioner. The building was completed and ready for occupancy when the 77 -78 school year began. Over the years, the district has had many favorable evaluations since that fateful decision of Dr. Edgar.
When Eddins first came to Rice as a junior high teacher in 1977, the then modern building had just opened, and the old structure still stood next to it. Kindergarten was a half-day program and elementary teachers each taught second grade levels at the same time. The Kindergarten through eighth grade district’s total enrollment was 145. Once students reached ninth grade, they were sent to Blooming Grove.
By 1978, Eddins had taken on the duties of bus driver, custodian, and principal of Rice School. At that time, Rice was part of a county school district under the direction of the Navarro County Superintendent of Schools. When the state legislature eliminated county superintendent offices across Texas in 1979, the School Board voted to designate Rice as an independent school district and named Eddins as Superintendent.
“During those difficult and growing years, the teachers and staff maintained a high standard of education for the students of Rice,” Eddins said. “Everyone had a positive attitude and wanted the very best for the students. Accolades should be given to my successor, Mr. Larry Baer, and subsequent School Boards for following through with the vision those 3 men had in 1976. Because of a group effort, we now have the ability to watch Rice ISD continue to grow and develop as an educational leader in Navarro County.”
Belinda Ferrer, secretary at Rice Elementary, has worked in the current building for 24 years and has an emotional tie to the campus.
“I’ve been through many life changes here-- the first day of kindergarten for my daughters, memories of co-workers, some who have passed on, and the day I received the call that my daddy had died,” Ferrer said. “I’ll miss the pitter-patter of feet in these halls and smiling faces filling the classrooms, but two things will remain the same in the new building just as they have here-- I love this district, and I’m going to love making more memories with each new generation of elementary students.”
Greg Barlow, Rice School Board member and former Rice Elementary student, also has fond memories of the current building. There used to be an old tractor tire by the gym. “Before school and at recess, we would take turns rolling in it down the hill towards the church. Imagine doing that today. It has truly been amazing to watch the district grow from a single, one hallway school into a three- school 3A district. The new campus will provide a bright, state-of-the-art environment that will allow our kids to feel safe while learning and having fun,” Barlow said.
“We are so grateful for the foresight our predecessors had in mobilizing efforts to build and keep Rice Schools operational,” said Lynn Jantzen, Rice ISD Superintendent. “ Our current school board and community have had a strong foundation upon which to build and grow Rice ISD. A great number of community members, along with board members, parents, faculty and staff have committed their time and leadership by serving on the facilities and bond election committees for our new elementary school, all for the learning of our students and the growth of our community. The value that former Superintendent Eddins and the Rice community of the seventies placed on education for the youth of Rice is evident and a tradition that carries on today.
Rice’s new elementary campus will have up-to-date technology integration in each classroom, including 70 inch, ten-point interactive monitors, a cutting-edge media center, and a FEMA-approved storm shelter.
The City of Rice has purchased the current elementary building and has plans to move city offices and the Rice Police Department there.