- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2003

Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates is committing billions of dollars to radically redesign failing public high schools into smaller, more academically rigorous institutions in predominantly black and Hispanic communities in which less than half the students graduate.
The goal, says the executive director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is to double the graduation rate for minority students by the end of the decade and quadruple the number of inner-city students prepared for college.
"Our high schools are the least effective part of the American education system," Tom Vander Ark, who administers the $24 billion foundation, wrote in a commentary to explain the reform efforts.
"This coming September, about 3.5 million young people in America will begin the 8th grade. Over the succeeding four years, more than 1 million of them will drop out an average of 3,500 each school day," Mr. Vander Ark wrote in Education Week. "Another 1.5 million will muddle through with a collection of credits that fail to prepare them for college, work, or citizenship.
"Boosting elementary achievement and narrowing the gap between white students and students of color will help, but not solve, America's high school crisis," he said. "If we keep building the impersonal tracked high schools, we'll need to expand our prison system."
Smaller is better, as shown by New York City's small-schools movement that started in the late 1970s, he said, adding that national school reform efforts need to take into account "a century of success in private education, particularly urban Catholic schools."
Other "pockets of excellence" pointing the way forward, he said, are "innovative and highly successful charter schools, including Houston's KIPP Academy, the 'Met' school in Rhode Island, San Diego's High Tech High, and the Aspire public charter schools" in the San Francisco Bay area of California.
The Gates foundation has given more than $447 million to school districts, colleges and universities with a mandate to transform 1,032 large high schools to smaller learning centers with rigorous evaluation to gauge their effectiveness, according to spokeswoman Marie Groart. About $139 million have gone to help start 347 high schools nationwide.
Earlier this month, the foundation gave $9 million to the California community college system to create 15 early-college high schools in the state, each having no more than 400 students.
"The new schools will target disadvantaged students who are not succeeding in large, impersonal high schools," the foundation's grant announcement said. "Students will be able to earn either college credits or an associate's degree and ultimately go on to earn a four-year degree."
In January, the foundation gave $5 million to the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund Inc. in New York City for a five-year program to redesign five low-performing schools and start three high schools in economically distressed communities.
The program will be part of school reform efforts of the nation's 45 historically black colleges and universities, the grant announcement said. Those schools include Howard University in the District, Morgan State University and Coppin State College in Baltimore, and Bowie State University in Bowie.
"Each of the eight high schools will have a rigorous academic program, strong relationships between schools, parents and the community and … be small, with a population of no more than 600 students," the announcement said.
"We expect this program to serve as a model for college-guided transformation of secondary education … [and] significantly increase the number of academically competitive African-American students in institutions of higher education and particularly public historically black colleges and universities," said N. Joyce Payne, founder of the Thurgood Marshall fund, named after the late U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Last year, the Gates foundation contributed the following:
$20 million to KnowledgeWorks Foundation of Cincinnati "to support new and redesigned schools in four to six of the urban districts in academic crisis in Ohio" through 2006.
$12 million over five years to the Fund for Educational Excellence in Baltimore to redesign nine neighborhood high schools and start six to eight "innovation high schools" in the city.
$10 million to Scholarship Research Institute of Portland, Maine, managed by former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, Maine Democrat, for 10 to 12 new high schools and to strengthen the state's "promising futures" schools.
$4 million to Linking Education and Economic Development of Sacramento to support startup of eight small high schools in California's capital city.
Mr. Vander Ark said teachers in the new and redesigned high schools "must have the skills, support, and incentives required to identify individual learning needs, act as academic advisers, and engage diverse students in powerful learning experiences. It's impossible to expect teachers to do this for 170 students in 180 [daily] 43-minute intervals" during each school year.
"Teachers should have no more than 90 students each week and should have time to work together with their colleagues to improve their craft and to meet shared challenges. Every teacher should also have access to strong in-house instructional leaders, and it's clear that we need twice as many as we have today."
The Gates foundation also expects students to "have the opportunity to read, write, and think about things that matter," Mr. Vander Ark said. "This requires extended projects, large blocks of time, and fewer 10-pound glossy and politically correct textbooks.
"To accomplish this, we must revise standards: They should be narrowed, clarified, and linked to college admissions. The old and new goals of high school collecting points to earn credits and passing the test should be replaced by regular demonstrations of learning.
"Secondary students must internalize a picture of what quality work looks like and why it's important. A test, or series of tests, can be part of their demonstration, but it shouldn't be the only way to assess what they have learned."

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