Education Funding

Gates Foundation Awards $56 Million For Small Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — September 13, 2000 3 min read
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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation marked the start of the school year by announcing $56 million in grants designed to encourage the creation and popularization of smaller schools.

Announcing the 11 grants last week, Gates Foundation officials said they hoped to showcase schools that model smaller, more personalized learning environments, as well as spur research and provide support for administrators trying to reinvent their own schools.

Tom Vander Ark, the executive director of education for the Seattle-based foundation started by the Microsoft Corp. billionaire and his wife, pointed to a growing body of research that suggests students thrive in smaller academic settings. The grants, he said, fit into the Gates Foundation’s $350 million, three-year commitment to help improve K-12 education.

Bill Gates

Part of that work is to highlight successful schools. This round of grants focuses on creating smaller learning environments, especially in secondary schools, and on figuring out how to “scale up” from one individual school’s success to creating networks or systems of such successful smaller schools, Mr. Vander Ark said.

“All these grants are to people who’ve demonstrated a commitment to a set of attributes that all successful schools share,” he said. “A small, personalized environment is one of those attributes.”

Based on Research

Patricia Wasley, who co-wrote a recent study that found many benefits to smaller schools, said the Gates grants offer an example of a foundation choosing a school improvement strategy based on solid research.

“The evidence is very compelling that small schools serve students much better,” said Ms. Wasley, the new dean of the University of Washington’s college of education. Her husband, Rick Lear, will direct a new small-schools center subsidized by one of the Gates grants.

The grants, marking the foundation’s first gift to schools outside its home state, span the country from New York to Alaska. The biggest by far will go to the Providence, R.I., school district, which will receive $13.5 million to work on devising ways to create smaller learning environments, as well as improving teaching and strengthening community involvement.

The Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs in Minneapolis will receive $7.9 million. It will work with the Cincinnati, St. Paul, Minn., and West Clermont, Ohio, districts to explore ways to reconfigure 10 large high schools serving a total of 16,000 students into smaller learning settings.

Joe Nathan, the center’s director, said there are many ways to approach such a challenge, including splitting up schools within one large building. The first steps, he said, will be for parents, teachers, students, and community members to explore options and visit successful sites before agreeing on a plan.

“I’m excited, hopeful and humble,” Mr. Nathan said. “It’s a big job.”

Other grants announced last week were:

  • $3.4 million to the Big Picture Company, a Providence, R.I.-based nonprofit group that researches new educational models, to open 12 small school;
  • $5.7 million to the Institute for K-12 Leadership at the University of Washington, Seattle, to work with eight urban districts in creating smaller model secondary schools;
  • $3.6 million to create the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard University graduate school of education, to offer on-site assistance to those leading or creating small schools;
  • $4.9 million to the Center for Collaborative Education in Boston, to create a resource center for small schools, with plans to open more such schools in upstate New York and New England;
  • $4.2 million to New York-based Community Studies Inc., to help small schools build stronger accountability systems;
  • $4.4 million to EdVisions, a teachers’ cooperative that runs the innovative Minnesota New Country School in Henderson, Minn., to replicate that model at 15 new schools;
  • $4.9 million to the Alaska Quality Schools Coalition, to redesign educational systems in six rural, low-income districts;
  • $2.9 million to the Coventry, R.I., school district, to implement standards-based school improvements; and
  • $750,000 to the Center on Reinventing Public Education, to establish a Small Schools Center at the University of Washington, which would conduct research and public outreach and offer technical assistance.

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