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RJR Nabisco FoundationSet To Grant $30 Million

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The rjr Nabisco Foundation this week plans to announce a $30-million program aimed at encouraging schools to "take risks" to develop "fundamentally new learning environments."

The five-year "Next Century Schools" project, one of the largest corporate efforts ever undertaken in education, would provide three-year grants of up to $250,000 a year to schools that agreed to explore innovative ideas.

"Our goal is to nurture risk-taking, not reward conventional wisdom," said Louis V. Gerstner Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of rjr Nabisco Inc.

"Throwing money at the existing system is not the answer," he added. "We can't just modify, or play around the edges."

"The biggest risk in education is not taking one," Mr. Gerstner said.

In the project's first year, the foundation will award grants to up to 15 schools. Preference will be given to schools in North Carolina, the headquarters of the firm's major tobacco subsidiary, and other sites that will be announced later.

In subsequent years, the number of schools to receive grants will increase, and there will be no geographical limitations, although grants will be distributed among urban, suburban, and rural districts.

To be eligible for the awards, schools must demonstrate a "groundswell of community support," including a commitment to come up with matching funds, and they must show how the programs will expand and how they could be replicated in other schools and districts.

"We simply do not want a one-time experiment that will die or go on existing in a single school system," Mr. Gerstner said. "These schools will represent laboratories for change."

Although the foundation will encourage schools to be as bold as possible in their plans, Mr. Gerstner said the project will give "additional consideration" to initiatives that provide accountability and control at the school site; that provide choice for students, parents, and teachers; and that use technology.

But, he said, "we are not going to require every activity we fund include" those features.

"We don't believe there is a single answer to improving schools in this country," he added.

Mr. Gerstner acknowledged that some of the programs will likely fail. But, he said, "we're not looking for safe solutions."

"We know that schools are full of teachers and principals who want to change," he said. "We want to help those people."

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