$20 million rescue set for high schools

Gates, local donors commit to Baltimore

March 01, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

A $20 million private investment in Baltimore's troubled high schools, announced yesterday with great hope and fanfare, really began more than a year ago with a single word.

No.

That is what the $24.2 billion Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation flatly told city school officials in January 2001.

Not that there wasn't a need. But the foundation, worried about wasting money, had heard bad things about the school system's past attempts at reform.

That initial rejection did not deter Carmen V. Russo, the school system's chief executive officer since July 2000, and Pamela E. Johnson, the system's director of development and external relations. "I am relentless," Russo said yesterday.

And so she and her colleagues doggedly pursued the Seattle-based Gates group. Months later, after numerous conversations and visits to Baltimore, the foundation changed its mind.

"With or without us, Carmen was convinced she was going to get this done," said the Gates' organization's Kenneth Jones. "And that is exactly what we wanted to see."

Now, Gates and nine local charitable groups have agreed to spend $20 million over five years, with Gates putting in $12 million.

The aim is to fix the nine worst high schools, in part by making them smaller, and to create six to eight new ones. Currently 14,000 students attend the nine neighborhood, or zone, schools - and 65 percent of freshmen fail to graduate.

Trinya Smith, a senior at Northwestern High School, called herself "one of the fortunate ones" because some of her classes have only 10 or 15 students.

But she said her English class has more than 35 students, making it difficult for the teacher to give every student proper attention. Smaller schools, she said, will benefit students.

Smaller schools

"Small schools work," Jones said during yesterday's celebratory news conference at the school system's North Avenue headquarters. "They are necessary to educate every student."

Russo told the crowd of 150: "This is really and truly a turning point."

With thanks to the contributors, Mayor Martin O'Malley added: "One of the most horrible things to happen to kids over the last 10 years are the low expectations we heaped on them as a city."

Much of the grant money will pay for training high school teachers and principals. The nine zone high schools, where enrollment averages 1,600, are Forest Park, Frederick Douglass, Lake Clifton, Northern, Northwestern, Patterson, Southern, Southwestern and Walbrook.

The six to eight new schools - which are to open in stages, starting in September 2003 or possibly this September - will be called innovation high schools and will have about 100 students per grade. Some will have themes.

Along with the Gates foundation, local support will come from: the Aaron Straus & Lillie Straus Foundation, the Abell Foundation, the Alvin and Fanny B. Thalheimer Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Baltimore Community Foundation, the Blaustein Foundations, Clayton Baker Trust, Lockhart Vaughan Foundation and the Open Society Institute-Baltimore.

Even before the private support crystallized, the school system had devised a blueprint to transform its high schools.

The foundation created in January 2000 by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, is using its resources to help shrink the size of high schools in several cities, including Chicago; San Diego; Sacramento, Calif.; Providence, R.I.; Houston; and Boston.

Winning funds for city

By late 2000, the foundation had decided that Baltimore would not be among them because of the poor track record of reform here.

That is where matters stood in January 2001, when Johnson met Jones in Oakland at a conference on small schools.

When Johnson approached him about supporting Baltimore, Jones politely but firmly declined. The school system had the right profile - poor and mostly African-American - but national educators "didn't have a really good opinion of Baltimore," Jones said.

"You have a lot of work to do," Jones told her, according to Johnson.

Johnson, like her boss, Russo, did not let it end there. "I'm always selling," Johnson said yesterday. "When I get no, I have to figure out how to overcome that no. That's my bottom line."

After the conference, Jones and Johnson spoke by phone and exchanged e-mails about the school system's plans. Jones monitored school-related news in Baltimore.

In June, he visited the city, met with Russo and toured some schools. Later that month, his boss, Tom Vander Ark, also visited.

By August, Gates representatives had decided to invest in Baltimore, but it was not until late October, after the school blueprint was revised, that the foundation committed privately to do so.

The next couple of months were spent lining up local "funders."

Russo said the key all along was driving home her optimistic message: "I was hoping to convince people it was a new day in Baltimore."

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