Private funds for city high schools

$20 million pledged by foundations over next 5 years

For smaller, better schools

February 28, 2002|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

A group of 10 foundations led by Bill Gates' charitable organization is making an unusual $20 million investment in public education in Baltimore intended to fix the nine worst high schools and create at least six new ones.

Foundation leaders say they seek to improve the lives of the 14,000 students who attend those schools, more than 60 percent of whom drop out before graduation.

"We want to change the way the public views public high schools," said Kenneth Jones, a senior program manager for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has made similar investments in about a dozen cities.

"Baltimore to us fits all the criteria," Jones said. "It is an urban city, it is primarily African-American students who have been underserved for a long time in those large, dysfunctional high schools.

"[It has] a superintendent who gets it, understands the need, understands the challenge and wants to do this kind of work."

The foundations and the school system's chief executive officer, Carmen V. Russo, plan a news conference today to discuss the funding.

The money - $12 million from the Gates foundation and $8 million from nine other sources including the Open Society Institute, Abell Foundation and Annie E. Casey Foundation - will be given over five years and channeled through the nonprofit Fund For Educational Excellence in Baltimore.

The investment will give outside interests - including nonprofits, city business leaders and national education experts - a greater say in what the high schools will look like in the next decade.

Russo and foundation leaders share the belief that the system should break down its large high schools into small schools of no more than 850 students that are more academically rigorous and give students a sense of belonging.

"We have been losing generations of children. I think there is unanimity that we can't continue to do that," said Russo. The grant, she said, "gives us a tremendous momentum to accomplish our goals."

School officials have been writing plans to reform the neighborhood, or zoned, high schools for at least six years, but those plans have never been implemented, in part because school board members have focused their effort and money on improving the elementary grades.

Those efforts have paid off as elementary school scores have risen on national and statewide tests for the past three years. But educators say that unless the reforms are continued in middle and high school, those children will begin losing ground to their counterparts.

Pressure on lawmakers

The announcement of a large investment by the private sector could put pressure on state lawmakers to give the school system more money to fix high schools. School board members have asked for a large increase in funding to improve the system.

"In making this large private contribution, we fully hope that the public funding will not only continue, but increase," said Diana Morris, Baltimore director of the Open Society Institute.

Saying the neighborhood high schools have "served as conveyor belts for the criminal justice system," Morris said the commitment of so many foundations is evidence of their belief that education is the key to rebuilding Baltimore.

She said that, with the large amount of money being invested, "we are able to impact the entire system."

Poly, City excluded

None of the money will be spent to improve the city's selective high schools, such as City College and Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

Other foundations contributing money include the Aaron Straus & Lillie Straus Foundation, Alvin and Fanny B. Thalheimer Foundation, Baltimore Community Foundation, Blaustein Foundations, Clayton Baker Trust and Lockhart Vaughan Foundation.

The Fund for Educational Excellence, which has been closely involved in elementary school reforms in Baltimore, will play a key role in shaping the high schools.

Fund educators, including former school board member Bonnie Copeland, will work with school administrators and a committee from each school to redesign each high school.

Planning for Southern High School, which will become a technology magnet school, Northern High School and Southwestern High School has already begun.

A high school reform committee made up of foundation and Fund representatives, teachers, state education officials, city school administrators, school board members, parents and business people will have to approve the design and spending plans.

The committee will be aided by outside education experts, who will help identify reform models around the country that would work in Baltimore.

Russo said the school system will also seek proposals from a variety of sources - from companies to nonprofits to universities - that want to create six to eight new high schools with as few as 400 students.

Teacher training

Much of the grant money will go toward high-quality training for high school teachers and principals, according to Morris. For instance, a reading coach might be hired to work at a particular school.

High school teachers have complained for years that they often aren't well trained for the subjects they teach and that they have difficulty teaching students who are sometimes reading and doing math on a third- or fourth-grade level.

The money can also be spent for materials, such as books, or any expense that would go toward improving instruction.

However, the money cannot be spent to pay regular school teachers, for construction or to supplant the money that now goes to the system.

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