Gates Foundation Providing $31 Million for Small Schools
By Greg Winter
Feb. 26, 2003
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is providing $31 million to nonprofit groups to start small, alternative high schools for 36,000 students, calling the gift a mere taste of what it would take to reach the millions of children who are ''failed and forgotten'' by the nation's public schools.
Thousands of alternative schools already serve as academies of last resort for children who are on the verge of dropping out. But for all their importance as refuges, the foundation said, they are rarely sites of academic rigor, creating a need for alternative schools intent on preparing dropouts not only for jobs, but for college as well.
''When millions of children are not graduating, we have a civic, economic and social disaster on our hands,'' said Tom Vander Ark, the foundation's education director, adding that the gift is part of a campaign to create no fewer than 1,000 new schools in the next 18 months. ''We think this is the most important problem in America, but what's so frustrating is that it's invisible. Very little attention is paid to the horrendous human toll that's going on.''
After climbing in most of the 20th century and peaking in the late 1960's, the national graduation rate steadily declined, settling around 70 percent in the last few years, the Department of Education says.
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For black and Latino students, the numbers are worse. Only about 55 percent of African-American students and 53 percent of Latinos graduate, a study last November by the Manhattan Institute shows, though there are many competing theories to explain such disparities.
The Gates foundation blames the prevalence of huge, impersonal, underfinanced high schools -- particularly common in poor, minority neighborhoods -- for the paltry graduation rates. Crowded to the point of anonymity, educators argue, these schools are ill-equipped to reach struggling students before they give up.
''If you ask the students why they dropped out, the most common answer you'll hear is, 'nobody at school cared about me, nobody worried whether I stayed or left,' '' said Dorothy Stoneman, president of YouthBuild USA, one of the nine educational nonprofits chosen by the Gates foundation to create 168 alternative schools.
While the foundation, started by the founder of the Microsoft Corporation and his wife, admits that small schools can fail children, too, it contends that only in an intensely personalized and tightly knit environment can troubled students be brought back on track.
But even assuming this premise is true, can enough small schools of no more than a couple of hundred students ever be built to significantly affect national graduation rates?
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The Gates foundation estimates that with 10,000 new schools, about 10 times what it plans on creating itself, the nation will only be able to keep pace with the growth in the school-aged population over the next decade. And while some educators say that small, alternative programs cost more than large ones, others argue that they can be just as cost-effective as traditional schools.
''We know our job is not to be a boutique school,'' said Dennis Littky, co-director of the Big Picture Company, one of the grantees. It has about 18 schools across the country, and always spends the same amount per student as the cities in which it operates, whether in Providence, R.I., or Oakland, Calif.
''If we're going to make a change in this world,'' Mr. Littky added, ''we have to do it at the same cost as everyone else.''
A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 26, 2003, Section A, Page 18 of the National edition with the headline: Gates Foundation Providing $31 Million for Small Schools. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe