The Gates Foundation is spending $1 billion to convert large high schools into small schools that are supposed to improve teacher-student relationships, thereby improving achievement and graduation rates. Seattle Weekly looks at the Gates-funded conversion of a high school near Seattle with 1,800 students, one third of whom don’t graduate. With $833,000 in Gates’ money, the old school was carved into five new schools. Success isn’t guaranteed, the Weekly story points out.
Student test results in “conversion” schools (large high schools divided into smaller schools) have yet to show dramatic changes, graduation rates remain flat, teachers are split about the effectiveness of the changes, and students are generally lukewarm.
Mountlake Terrace teachers had voted overwhelmingly for conversion but the effort of creating new schools was exhausting. Students could choose:
Achievement, Opportunity and Service (AOS), a “traditional high school experience in a small school setting”; Discovery, where students “design your own projects instead of taking tests”; Innovation, “aimed at creative thinkers: writers, artists, inventors”; Renaissance, a bridge to four-year colleges with the bulk of Mountlake’s advanced placement classes; and Terrace Arts and Academic School (TAAS), a 2-D and 3-D arts-oriented program.
Soon Discovery became the “ghetto school,” while AOS was the preppy, white school. Staff members complained that competing for students was divisive. The workload was high; one quarter of the teachers quit after the first year. Tom Vander Ark, who runs the Gates Foundation, concedes the results have been disappointing.
Vander Ark readily admits the foundation is on a steep learning curve. “Many of the schools are spending two years figuring out what to do, and another two years making structural changes. They never get to the heart of the matter, which is improving teaching and learning.” The experiences at Mountlake Terrace and other struggling large schools are changing the foundation’s approach. “It is harder and more expensive than our first grants provided. In our early grant making, small became the goal. To the extent it became the main focus, that wasn’t productive. It’s probably more important to improve the curriculum, the school culture, the relationships in the school. That’s my mistake. I should have formed programs with the initial focus on teaching and learning, and ended with structure.”
This is a very well-written story on — thanks to Gates — a very hot topic in education.