River Oaks Elementary

The History of River Oaks Elementary


In 1925, River Oaks was not the neighborhood of stately homes and majestic, sweeping lawns that it is today—it was an undeveloped patch of scrubby land practically inaccessible from downtown Houston. But the Hogg Brothers, like Houston’s Allen Brothers before them, recognized opportunity out in “the country.”

Over the next 75 years, River Oaks Elementary School became a mainstay not just of the River Oaks neighborhood developed by the Hogg brothers, but of the city of Houston itself. In those years, our city, country and the world have been transformed, with technological innovation, war, political and social upheaval and population growth each forcing change. Yet, like the sturdy oaks and magnolia trees on the campus and the manicured lawns nearby, River Oaks Elementary has endured, weathering organizational and societal shifts, but always offering students the best educational opportunities available. For three-quarters of a century, River Oaks Elementary has thrived on the corner of Kirby Drive and San Felipe—a testament to the power of education, the dedication of faculty, administrators and parents, and the enthusiasm of children.

The Beginning of River Oaks Elementary

In 1924, only 140,000 people called Houston home. Most of them, particularly those with means, lived downtown or near Rice Institute.

So it was with great foresight that the Hogg brothers purchased 1100 acres of land near River Oaks Country Club. They envisioned a community with wide streets, landscaped esplanades and a mix of large and small single-family lots and apartments. Included in the plan was a large 14-acre tract for the Hogg family home, christened Bayou Bend by their sister Miss Ima Hogg. The plan also called for two retail developments and a neighborhood school.

This development coincided with a renewed focus on education in Houston. In 1924 the City of Houston stopped running the schools and an independent agency, the Houston School District, took over the job. At the time, the district had 60,000 students and 1,800 teachers and the tax basis was $4.20 per student. Houston’s curriculum was based on the work of renowned educator John Dewey who advocated promoting the child as an individual and as a member of society participating in social progress.

To carry out this vision, the school board took the unusual step of employing a full-time architect, Harry Payne. His first commission was to design six schools in Houston, including River Oaks Elementary. Each school had the same interior design but boasted different exteriors. The slate roof and French-colonial exterior chosen for River Oaks Elementary became hallmarks of the school’s distinctive appearance, instantly recognizable to this day.

River Oaks Elementary opened its wide doors to the first pupils in the fall of 1929, just two months before the stock market crash that signaled the beginning of the Great Depression. But on that sunny day when school first started, eager students and their parents were warmly welcomed by professional educators determined to offer their students a first-rate, progressive education.

The idea of progressive education was important for many of the River Oaks leaders. Miss Ima Hogg, along with two other socially prominent activists, Agnese Carter and Pat Houston, originally planned to found a private school. However, intrigued by then Superintendent Dr. E. E. Oberholtzer’s vision, they decided to support the local public school, River Oaks Elementary and took an active role in its inception and development. Mrs. Carter, mother of twin girls who enrolled in the first grade in 1929, became the first president of the first PTA, then called the Supplementary Aids Committee. At the time, funding for elementary schools was severely limited. Thanks to the aggressive fund raising efforts of Miss Hogg and her friends, the Supplementary Aids Committee supplied each teacher with $10 a month for supplies, decorated and stocked the city’s best elementary school library, and provided funds for music and art appreciation. In addition, the committee was active in selecting the first principal, Eva Margaret Davis, a well-respected educator. Miss Davis was also entranced with the progressive philosophy of River Oaks Elementary School and was delighted to share her love of all the arts with her students until her retirement.

School life through the years

River Oaks Elementary’s focus on educating the whole student was apparent from the beginning. The kindergarten was outfitted with an unusual piece of equipment: an indoor jungle gym. The school’s method was hands-on—the students were to learn by being active and doing things, figuring out as much as possible for themselves. The school also boasted a science lab where the students could observe real animals and conduct nature studies.

In the 1940s, that meant that the children planted and tended to a victory garden on the River Oaks grounds, growing fruits and vegetables to help the war effort.

In the 1990s, kids once again got their hands dirty.

“My class was the very first to break ground in creating the marsh/eco-center in the backyard. We designed it, dug it, planted it, and marked our names on stones on the walkway.” — Rebecca Halpin, 1987-1992

Furthermore, the school’s designers installed a fireplace in the kindergarten so the young students would feel welcome at the school. Tall windows and hardwood floors also contributed to a homey atmosphere.

The cafeteria was another source of hominess. When they arrived at school, the children could smell cookies and bread baking and were excited to know that they would get those delicious-smelling goodies at lunch. In fact, some alums still swear that the clover rolls they had at River Oaks Elementary were the best they ever tasted to this day.

During the 30s and 40s, many of Houston’s politically and socially prominent families built homes in River Oaks and sent their children to River Oaks Elementary. Quickly, the school’s enrollment exceeded available space and temporary buildings were erected. The students affectionately referred to these structures as “the shacks.”

“I remember being old enough in 3rd grade to finally go to the “shacks,” the temporary buildings built for the upsurge of students that came into the school system post-WWII. . .Then, they were new, and exciting and had bigger lockers.” — Diana Bland Linder, 1948- Sept. 1952

At 75, River Oaks Elementary once again sports temporary buildings, although thanks to an approved bond election, a permanent classroom wing is in the works.

Through the years, the school was a centerpiece of the entire River Oaks community. The River Oaks Garden Club landscaped the grounds in 1929 and many community leaders and parents were active volunteers in the school. Students fondly remember the sense of community that the school strove to maintain. A highlight was the annual spring picnic for students and their families.

“I remember all of the school picnics. Searching for a tree for your class. . .running around the school yard during the picnic on a warm spring evening and having the entire school yard covered with students, families and teachers.” — Marc Tausend, 1957-1964

Of course, over the past 75 years, students have sported radically different hairstyles, clothes and shoes. The fashions and fads of the day drove what the kids wore and what they played. The footfall from saddle shoes and penny loafers gave way to the softer tread of Converse high tops and later to high-tech athletic shoes.

Some trends were less than welcomed by the teachers.

“A few of us 5th graders in 1955-56 drove the teachers crazy when we put metal “taps” on our shoes. The racket created on the floors of those long school corridors was delicious. Principal Todd decreed a ban on these devilish devices. But a handful of scofflaws continued to torment.” — Randy Seybold, 1950-1957

In fashion, the girls saw their skirts get gradually shorter, then long, then short again. Boys once sported pressed trousers, then bell-bottoms and finally baggy jeans and surfer shorts. Games differed too. Waxing and waning in popularity were king of the hill, soccer, dodge ball, red rover, four square, jump rope, “chase the boys,” and hopscotch. But former students, no matter their era, share the same fond memories of the friendships forged, pranks played, subjects studied, and the dedicated teachers and administrators who made their school such a welcoming and exciting place to learn.

And warm, situated as it is in humid Houston. Today’s students would be aghast to hear how generations of kids attended River Oaks Elementary without air conditioning.

“There was no air conditioning, just big floor fans. Hoop petticoats were a fad and after recess, we would stand next to the fans, and tip the hoop petticoats up just enough to really cool down!” –Sally Brown Cunningham, 1959-1962

In hot weather, the big windows were open, but students may have used them for more than just keeping cool.

“In the 4th grade, I remember classmate Jasper Neath, who was always making the class crack up and exacerbating the teachers, jumped out the window of our class when the teacher had her back turned.” –Patricia Potter, 1964-1969

A changing world

Of course, outside the welcoming walls of River Oaks Elementary School, major changes have occurred in the world throughout the school’s history. Students were not and could not be insulated from world events. In World War II, students bought savings bonds and planted victory gardens at school. They walked to school because gasoline was rationed and worried about “our boys” overseas. Later events, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the bombing of Poe Elementary School in 1959 and the Cold War affected students as well. In 1954, an air raid siren was installed on San Felipe. After that, for years and years, the kids engaged in a weekly drill:

“The air raid horn would sound for about 5 minutes, plus we had to go into the hallway and prepare for a simulation of some sort of explosion.” — Max Shilstone (1960-1967)

However, the kids also learned from some of the exciting events taking place in the world at large.

“I remember so well following the flights of Alan Shepherd, Gus Grissom and John Glenn when America first went into space. I believe we were in Sixth Grade in Mrs. Boone’s class. I suppose a parent must have brought in their TV from home and we set up a command station for the day. We watched the liftoff and followed it until splash down as I recall. We loaded the blackboards with information as it spewed from the black and white set. I am so grateful to the teachers and Miss Todd for having the vision to realize that these events were of such historical significance that the regular class regimen was put aside for the day.” — Brad Duff, 1955-1962

And perhaps less serious, but no less important to an 11 year old boy

“In those days, the World Series was on daytime TV. Mrs. Branton (6th grade) was a big fan and had a radio turned on in her class. But my teacher, Mrs. Brannen, was not a fan, much to the chagrin of us boys. In early October, 1956, Mrs. Branton popped her head in the door of our class and announced, “Hey, Don Larson just no-hit the Dodgers!”” –Randy Seybold, 1950-1957

Other alums shared their memories of Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War, the Challenger explosion, the Civil Rights movement, and political elections both local and national. ROE educators explored the impact and context of these current events, incorporating world and local events into their classroom curriculum. Many teachers held mock elections, giving students their first taste of the political process.

A new era

Nothing stays exactly the same, and so it was with the population of River Oaks. By the 1960s, the people who had moved their families to the community in the 30s and 40s no longer had young children at home; others were choosing to send their offspring to private schools. Furthermore, the desegregation of Houston schools caused a shift in the zoning boundaries and population of the school, resulting in fewer students. To make up for declining enrollment, in 1972 River Oaks opened a “school within a school” for gifted and talented students. It was the first such program in the Houston Independent School District. These students could live anywhere in the city, not just in the neighborhood, and slowly the school began to change. What was once an all-white institution gradually became a place of greater diversity, among both students and teachers.

“I was one of the first 3rd graders to attend the first year of the Vanguard program (when it was called ESG- elementary school for the gifted – try explaining that to your neighborhood friends!) I believe the original goal was to try to integrate the school, and it worked well for me. I made friends of many races; my parents were even surprised to find out that I had minority teachers, as I’d never thought to mention that fact to them at home.” — Jennifer Null Hua, 1972-1976

“I remember when ROE first started accepting what we called (scornfully) “the gifted.” That was a big deal for us. I remember they had a huge computer in the hallway outside of the gifted classrooms but we did not use it.” — Melinda Rawlinson Nunes, 1970-1976

As always, even though there was initial resistance to the change, the school continued to thrive. The gifted and talented program, later renamed Vanguard, was so successful at River Oaks Elementary that it became a model for other such programs throughout the district.

In 1986, the school was reclassified as Vanguard only, and the neighborhood portion of the school closed. To secure an available spot, prospective pupils had to take qualifying tests. Students from all over the city competed for admission.

In the mid 1990s, a group of neighborhood parents began rallying support for reopening a neighborhood component at River Oaks. Some within the community resisted the change, but the HISD school board voted its approval. In 1996, River Oaks again opened its doors wide to neighborhood children.

Today, the neighborhood and Vanguard programs are cohesive units. Neighborhood and Vanguard students share school resources and their parents work together to support the school as a whole. The students learn with and from each other and all the children will benefit when River Oaks earns accreditation as an International Baccalaureate school. What was once a divisive issue has become a source of strength for the school.

River Oaks Elementary, with its emphasis on progressive education, has had to adapt to change, both external and internal, in order to survive and meet the changing needs of its community and the children it educates. In 75 years, generations of children have eagerly climbed the steps and passed through the red doors of River Oaks Elementary. Some alums have sent their children or grandchildren to the school as well. Former students have gone on to successful careers and lives, always remembering the friends made and lessons learned at the school on the corner of Kirby and San Felipe.

Extra quotes

“My first experience of the history and culture of Downtown Houston by taking the buses downtown and going through the tunnels, up tall buildings, through the historic district and the heritage houses.” –Mark Yurewicz, 1992-1998

“During World War II—we had to ration for gasoline and sugar. We rode the bus a lot because we could not use much gasoline.” –Marguerite Whitty Davidson, 1943- 1950

“When WWII started, I remember doing a May Pole dance from a country that had just been overrun by Hitler. There was a snowstorm about 1940. When we finally went back to school, we had a school-wide snowball fight—north wing against the south.” — Margaret Adler Strub, 1938-1942

“In sixth grade, we were allowed to sign up for 30minute sessions on “the” computer, which was as big as a floor-model copier then. We programmed it to print out a picture of Snoopy.” –Jennifer Null Hua, 1972-1976

“I remember being sheltered from world events and the like when I was a student. One memory I have that stands out is being taught to embroider in third grade. The boys learned one things while the girls learned embroidery.

I remember when ROE first started accepting what we called (scornfully) “the gifted.” That was a big deal for us. We did not associate with the gifted students and hardly ever saw them. I remember they had a huge computer in the hallway outside of the gifted classrooms but we did not use it.

We still call dinner rolls “river oaks rolls” after the rolls served in the cafeteria.” — Melinda Rawlinson Nunes, 1970-1976

“I always enjoyed riding my bike to and from school, especially when the streets flooded after a hard rain. I was probably late a few times as riding through the flooded streets was more interesting than getting to school on time.” — Dick Tottenham, 1957

“The air raid drills during WWII and buying stamps for US savings bonds.” — Nancy Ferguson Haywood, 1941-1947

“It was a “rite of passage” to graduate from writing with a pencil to writing with an ink pen (real ink, not a ball point). We had to prove our penmanship.” — Tebbie Wright Clift, 1956-1961

“When I was first in River Oaks Elementary, my mother drove me to school in a car pool she had with her friends. We lived on Inwood near Kirby. She drove beyond the school to Ella Lee to pick up Evans Attwell. Pauline Arnold and Lee Tuttle lived nearer our house. We all could have walked to school, but our mothers drove us and this was before the days of so much traffic.” — Francita Stuart Ulmer, 1936-1942