March 11 — 12:00 am, 2004

Gates Foundation: big funder of small schools, but not yet in Philly

Since its inception in 1994, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has committed more than $1 billion for new and existing public schools, much of which has been aimed at creating small high schools.

But while many large, urban school systems – including New York, Chicago, Boston, and Baltimore – are already benefiting from generous Gates grants to create small high schools, the Philadelphia School District has not yet successfully tapped Gates dollars for its high school plans.

According to Ellen Savitz, the School District’s chief development officer, "By the time we clarified how the District’s plans fit with the goals of the Gates Foundation, it was too late for the last funding cycle." She said the foundation "strongly encouraged" the District to look toward making a proposal for the 2004-05 funding cycle.

One of the major educational goals of the Seattle-based Gates Foundation is to jumpstart efforts to create high-quality, innovative small high schools, ideally with 400 students or less. In schools of this size, the foundation maintains that the teaching and learning environment can be personalized for students and staff, helping ensure that students receive rigorous preparation for post-secondary education, employment and citizenship.

The foundation is especially committed to improving the high school graduation rates of low-income students and students of color. They say these goals are better served by high schools much smaller than those most students currently attend.

Rather than awarding grants directly to school districts, Gates gives grants to nonprofit organizations that have established partnerships with school districts or consortia of school districts. The foundation has supported planning and feasibility studies and has given multi-million dollar grants for up to five years to reorganize existing high schools and create new ones.

Last year, the foundation gave $51 million to create 67 small high schools in New York City.

Marie Groak, a spokesperson for the Gates Foundation, said the foundation looks for districts where it can improve the graduation rates for low-income students and students of color, and for communities where there is evidence of stable and committed leadership of key community players – including the superintendent, mayor, civic and business leaders, and grass roots organizations – who present a unified vision for educational reform.

Groak said the foundation sees itself as "a catalytic funder" that helps get the small high school ball rolling. She also noted that the foundation needs to be confident it will be able to exit the community in five years, with the assurance that the schools it has helped create will be maintained by the district.

Savitz said that both the School District and the Gates Foundation, despite working toward the same goals, had initial concerns and questions. She said the Gates Foundation had to be convinced of several points, including that District CEO Paul Vallas was committed to being in the District for five years or more; that the District was stable and had a comprehensive plan for systemic change that included high schools; and that the District could manage and maintain newly established small high schools over the very long term.

From the District’s perspective, Savitz said they needed to probe the flexibility of the Gates Foundation’s requirements for small high schools, particularly their size limits and the foundation’s approach toward reconfiguring existing high schools or creating new ones so that they might share "big ticket" items like gymnasiums, cafeterias and libraries. Savitz expressed concern that schools of 200-400 would limit the selection of courses and would make it challenging to create many afterschool activities.

The District is working on plans for new high schools built in partnership with the Franklin Institute and Microsoft (see District pursues creation of new, smaller high schools), but these would be somewhat larger than the small schools supported by Gates.

Savitz reported that the District is also working with the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education on a proposal to the Woodrow Wilson Foundation that would support the creation of a campus of small high schools.

Savitz said the District is also hoping that its recently created Philadelphia’s Children First Fund, which has nonprofit status and will have an independent oversight board, can be used to allow funding from grants for the creation of small high schools to flow directly to the District.

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