A boost for high school reform

Baltimore: The Gates Foundation and local groups pledge $20 million for small schools initiative.

March 03, 2002

THEY WOULDN'T take no for an answer.

City school officials knew the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation didn't accept unsolicited requests for education grants. They knew that a program officer with the foundation had already declined city government officials' invitation to invest here.

But at a school reform conference in Oakland, Calif., early last year, Pamela E. Johnson, city schools' development director, made another run at the mega-million-dollar foundation.

"What do we have to do to get your interest?" she asked Gates official Kenneth W. Jones.

Schools chief Carmen V. Russo and her staff got the answer and set about doing what had to be done. They presented the foundation with their blueprint to stem a 60 percent dropout rate among the 14,000 students who attend Baltimore's unwieldy neighborhood high schools by creating smaller, more intimate campuses and ensuring a rigorous course of study. They refined and polished it. They got state and local education experts to join the effort.

And last week, after more than a year of discussion, planning and school visits, the Gates Foundation committed $12 million to the reform initiative, joining 10 area foundations that invested $8 million to secure the deal.

The partnership gives high school reform efforts -- long overdue and badly needed in the city -- credibility, start-up money and an incentive to get going. It gives Ms. Russo, recruited to Baltimore because of her success reforming New York high schools, a real shot at strutting her stuff. And it gives local philanthropic community a stake in school improvements.

State leaders in Annapolis need to pay attention: If this team makes headway in reforming city high schools, the state should pitch in and be prepared to back it.

There are no giveaways here, and there shouldn't be. Principals and others who want to form new boutique schools will have to compete for money that officials say will most likely fund teacher training and development.

An executive committee of state and city school officials, foundation representatives, parents and teacher groups will make those decisions. The right school leaders -- and perhaps some nontraditional ones -- must be in place to make change a reality.

So let's get busy.

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