Education Funding

City Districts to Change ‘Obsolete’ High Schools

By Debra Viadero — October 17, 2001 3 min read
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School districts in seven cities are set to share $60 million in grants designed to help them transform their high schools from an “obsolete, factory model” into places where all students can learn at high levels.

The grant awards were announced last week by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Ranging from $8 million to $12 million over five years, the grants will go to schools in Boston; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Houston; Providence, R.I.; Sacramento, Calif.; San Diego; and Worcester, Mass. The philanthropies said their gifts would help reinvigorate schooling for teenagers in more than 85 high schools in those cities.

“This is something public high schools in this country have never done before,” declared Michele Cahill, a senior program officer for the Carnegie Corporation, a philanthropy based in New York City. “And that is create a system in which every young person succeeds in and is engaged in schooling.”

With high school dropout rates approaching 50 percent in some urban communities, secondary schools have become a focus of renewed national concern in recent years. Just a week earlier, a national panel formed by former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley called on high schools to provide a college-preparatory education for every student and to find alternative ways to engage the 12th graders who tend to tune out in their final year of school. (“Every Student Seen to Need College Prep,” Oct. 10, 2001.)

The seven districts selected to take part in the foundations’ “Schools for a New Society” initiative survived a winnowing process that began 15 months ago. At that time, the Carnegie Corporation, working by itself, invited 21 districts to draw up proposals for revitalizing their high schools. Out of that group, the 10 districts with the strongest proposals received $2.5 million each to spend a year further honing their plans. The districts that missed the final cut were Indianapolis, Portland, Ore., and Little Rock, Ark.

Scaling Down

The foundations are hoping to parlay their spending into an even bigger effort by requiring all the districts to match the grant awards, dollar for dollar, and to recruit colleges, community groups, local businesses, policymakers, and others as partners in their reform initiatives.

While the districts’ improvement plans vary, a common thread among them are efforts to carve the typical large, comprehensive high school into smaller, more personalized learning environments.

“It’s vital to add efforts to personalize education, especially for most disadvantaged students, or we will continue to see increases in dropout rates,” said Tom Vander Ark, the executive director for education for the Gates Foundation, which joined in the Carnegie-led effort later on.

Sacramento’s improvement plan, for example, calls for dividing each of the district’s eight large high schools into six to 10 small, autonomous learning communities. Houston educators will use part of their grant to create new schools and to break other large high schools into schools-within- schools.

Tougher Coursework

In Chattanooga, on the other hand, a focal point of high school improvement steps is the elimination of low-level courses and an increase in the numbers of poor and minority students in the toughest academic courses.

An unusual feature of Providence’s plans is a “performance-based school,’' where there are no grade levels and students can progress at their own pace.

“This is a very large set of America’s urban secondary districts,” Mr. Vander Ark said. “When you add to the work already going on in Oakland, California; New York; and Chicago, it creates a significant momentum that will change the landscape of high schools in America.”

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