Millions aimed at high schools (Wednesday, 4/23/2003, The Oregonian )

Two of the biggest private foundations in the Northwest will pour $25 million into high schools in Oregon to try to spur innovation, close the achievement gap and increase the graduation rate.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation of Seattle and the Meyer Memorial Trust of Oregon will announce today the five-year grant that will develop 30 small high school settings from scratch or in existing schools. The Gates Foundation, established by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, will contribute $15 million. The Meyer Trust, the legacy of Oregon retail giant Fred Meyer, will kick in $10 million.

“This is a tremendous first for Oregon, and particularly for high schools,” said Gene Evans of the Oregon Department of Education. The money represents the largest single private grant ever given to K-12 education in Oregon.

The grant will target schools with high concentrations of low-income students and students of color. Tom Vander Ark, director of Gates Foundation education programs, said at least 25 high schools across the state meet that criteria, not just in Portland.

“This is going to prove to be a cost-effective economic development strategy for Oregon,” Vander Ark said. “I think the best thing you can do for the economy is to improve schools.”

The project will target existing high schools of 800 students or more, but also will be open to parents, teachers or others who want to establish new schools, such as charters. Those schools ideally will have no more than 400 students, Vander Ark said, but added that the criteria are flexible and are still being developed.

Vander Ark, former superintendent of Federal Way schools in suburban Seattle, said achievement in U.S. high schools is abysmal compared with other countries.

“The vast majority of American kids aren’t getting what they need and what they deserve from high school,” he said.

The Gates Foundation, with $32 billion in assets, is the biggest private foundation in the United States. Two years ago, it began focusing its education efforts exclusively on restructuring U.S. high schools, making them smaller and more personalized.

Gates has funded school reform projects in 35 states, many in Washington and the San Francisco Bay Area. Vander Ark said he has been talking to education leaders in Portland for three years, looking for the right opportunity to get a project started.

At the same time, the Meyer trust, which has made more than $75 million in educational grants across the state, was looking for a way to help close the achievement gap between white and minority students in Oregon schools and to attack Oregon’s high dropout rate.

Doug Stamm, Meyer’s executive director, said he and a project officer spent nine months researching how best to close the achievement gap in Oregon. As part of their work, they looked at the Gates Foundation’s work in creating small schools, and they surveyed 50 school superintendents in Oregon.

“Forty-eight of the 50 said if we could make the biggest impact in Oregon, it would be to bring along the state’s small school initiative,” Stamm said. A handful of Oregon school districts have received federal money to create small learning communities.

Six months ago, Vander Ark and Stamm began talking and decided to pool their efforts. The Gates Foundation’s initial interest in Portland was expanded to cover the Meyer trust’s interest in a project that would help the entire state. The Oregon Small Schools Initiative was created.

The foundations chose E3 — Employers for Education Excellence — as the agency that will administer the project. E3 started six years ago as an arm of the Oregon Business Council and has fostered school-business partnerships around the state but has recently concentrated on encouraging communitywide involvement to improve public schools.

Stamm and Vander Ark said having a business-based organization involved in the project was important to its success. They also cited E3’s statewide contacts as a plus.

Rene Leger, E3 executive director, said a project director and a small staff will be hired soon. Each staff member will work with three or four schools to develop the restructuring proposals, he said. E3 will fine-tune criteria for the school grants and will distribute multiyear grants next spring.

The plan is to break 18 to 20 large schools into small ones, and create eight to 10 new small schools. Vander Ark said the schools don’t have to be traditional public schools — they could be charter schools.

But Vander Ark said the schools will likely have a series of common characteristics. They will be highly focused in their mission, unlike large, comprehensive high schools that offer something for everyone. They will expect all students to prepare for college or for training that will lead to a well-paid job. They will provide the opportunity for close personal relationships between students and teachers. And they will provide time for teachers to work together to improve their skills.

He said the money will be used to train teachers and administrators, not to replace teachers who are being laid off as districts cut their budgets this year.

The project will have clear criteria for measuring progress, including graduation rates, attendance, test scores and college enrollment rates, he said. The success of the projects will be evaluated by outside agencies.

On the Web: http://www.gatesfoundation.org; http://www.mmt.org; http://www.e3oregon.org

Steven Carter: 503-221-8521; stevencarter@news.oregonian.com


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