As part of a broader push to create hundreds of small, personalized high schools across the country, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced the launch last week of a five-year, $31 million, initiative to start 168 alternative schools geared to young people who are falling through the cracks in traditional high schools.
Awards ranging from $887,500 to $6.3 million apiece will go to eight organizations, with a ninth grant of $1.9 million going to the Big Picture Co., which will coordinate the initiative. The Big Picture Co. is currently in the fourth year of a five-year, $4.1 million grant from the Gates Foundation to replicate the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, or the “Met,” an alternative school it runs in the nonprofit organization’s hometown of Providence, R.I.
Tom Vander Ark, the Seattle-based foundation’s executive director for education, said the grant recipients subscribe to the Met’s approach of marrying a commitment to high academic expectations with an individualized, supportive environment for students who have had trouble in other settings. (“What’s Up, Doc?,” April 28, 1999.)
“They combine rigor, relevance, and relationship in unique ways with the goal of preparing every student for college and work,” Mr. Vander Ark said. “In many of these schools, students leave with the skills to get and keep a family- wage job, but they’re also prepared for further education.”
The largest single grant will go to the Georgia chapter of Communities in Schools, a national nonprofit group based in Alexandria, Va. The grant to the Atlanta- based chapter, which currently runs two alternative schools and plans to raise that total to 25 over three years, was trumpeted at a press conference last week by state schools Superintendent Kathy Cox.
Another top recipient is YouthBuild USA, a national nonprofit group based in Somerville, Mass., that runs 200 programs that allow former dropouts to prepare for General Educational Development exams or earn their high school diplomas while helping to build affordable housing. The organization will use the grant to strengthen its 23 diploma-granting sites, including 19 charter schools, and to create 10 more.
Tim Cross, the vice president of field services for YouthBuild, called the Gates initiative “an amazing opportunity” that will ultimately help participants amplify the voice of dropouts in national discussions of how to improve education.
“We think it’s really important that their experience not be lost in this debate,” he said.
Other grant recipients include two national organizations based in the nation’s capital— one representing municipal governments and the other focused on helping expand educational choices for black parents—as well a charter school located there.
A Denver-based network of Christian alternative schools also is receiving funding, along with a community college in Oregon that already runs alternative high schools serving 1,500 students.
Dennis Littky, the co- director of the Big Picture Co., said he hopes his experience in quickly replicating an alternative, but academically oriented, school model will help ease the way for other grant recipients trying to pull off a similar feat.
“The hope is it helps everybody: We learn from them, they learn from us,” Mr. Littky said.
The Gates Foundation is in the midst of a major national initiative to foster and replicate successful small schools and to break up existing, large high schools, especially those in urban areas. Such a broad-scale assault on the prevailing approach to secondary schooling is justified, the foundation asserts, by worrisome dropout rates and forecasts that the high school population will double by 2009.
To reverse what he called “a massive failure of America’s high schools,” Mr. Vander Ark said school and civic leaders need to assemble “portfolios of options” that include more of the kinds of alternative schools that the latest grants will support.
The grants announced last week will be supplemented by additional fund- raising efforts by the recipients, foundation officials said. They added that the $31 million will cover, on average, roughly 70 percent of the costs of the projects being supported.
Since March 2000, the Gates Foundation has committed more than $400 million to help establish or strengthen nearly 1,100 small, personalized high schools, foundation officials report. That includes nearly 230 new schools, in addition to the 168 alternative schools to be supported by the latest grants.
Mr. Vander Ark said the foundation would announce efforts bringing the new schools’ total to around 1,000 over the next 18 months.