Education Opinion

In With the New

October 01, 2002 3 min read
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Now is the time to devote more energy and resources to creating new, innovative public schools.

There are two strategies for establishing better public schools. One is to transform existing traditional ones. The other is to build nontraditional schools from scratch. For almost 20 years, nearly every reform effort has focused on the former. But because the problems are so daunting and the school culture so firmly entrenched, success has been elusive. Now is the time to devote more energy and resources to creating new, innovative public schools.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is pursuing both strategies and is providing an example that policymakers and educators would do well to study and follow. Established in January 2000, the foundation has spent about $1.5 billion on education, a big chunk of it trying to transform the American high school.

Gates has been awarding huge grants to districts committed to overhauling their high schools and dividing them into smaller learning communities. Baltimore, Boston, Providence, Sacramento, St. Paul, and a number of other districts are prominent beneficiaries. But the foundation does not bet all of its money on the existing system. It also has been giving millions of dollars to education entrepreneurs intent on creating or replicating small schools that are radically different from the traditional high school.

Here are some examples. The Big Picture Company is replicating the Met (Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center), the school that it designed and operates in Providence, in 12 cities across the country. New Visions for Public Schools in New York City is creating small high schools and redesigning large ones with special focus on the lowest-performing. The Fund for Educational Excellence in Baltimore is starting up a handful of Innovation High Schools. And EdVisions is creating 15 new schools modeled after the Minnesota New Country School and linking them in a network.

As chairman of its board, I’ve been working with the nonprofit Big Picture Company and can testify that many more than 12 communities have asked for a Met school. Other education entrepreneurs are experiencing similar demands. Some new schools are charters, and some are part of regular district systems, but all are public.

These innovative schools, like the Met, are small, have a clear sense of mission, and are highly focused. They’re dedicated to personalized education and the belief that all kids can learn. And education, in these schools, goes beyond the classroom. Students interact with adults, and parents are actively involved.

The Gates Foundation recently committed $40 million to fund 70 small “early college” high schools that will enable students to earn both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in four years. As with most of its other grants, Gates has partnered with several major foundations (Carnegie, Ford, and Kellogg included), and, overall, eight organizations will share the funds.

In announcing the grant, Tom Vander Ark, executive director of education for the Gates Foundation, said: “These new small schools will help bridge the gap between high school and college, where we lose too many students. The last years of high school are some of the most important developmentally and often squandered academically. At these small schools, students will receive the personalized and accelerated learning they need to ensure a smoother transition to college or the workplace.”

Why can’t districts create innovative small schools like these when they must build new facilities to accommodate a growing enrollment, or when they have to replace obsolete schools, or when they have to close those that are failing? Money is no obstacle. The Gates grants are used primarily to provide the additional capacity the entrepreneurial organ-izations need to get the new schools up and running. After that, the schools support themselves with per-pupil allocations, just as other public schools do.

Skeptics argue that “starting a bunch of boutique schools” is an ineffective way to meet the challenge of educating 47 million kids. Perhaps. But given the enormous diversity in our society, we should be eager to create a variety of learning opportunities for students and parents. And what have we got to lose by trying?

—Ronald A. Wolk


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