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In February 2005, Bill Gates the then 49-year-old founder and chairman of Microsoft Corporation, whose $50 billion net worth has enabled him to become the world's most generous philanthropiststepped to a podium to deliver the keynote address to a gathering of U.S. governors in Washington, D.C., for a two-day education summit. Although everyone in the room was already familiar with Gates's passion for education reform, the force of his words took some by surprise.
"American high schools are obsolete," Gates declared. "By obsolete, I don't just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed, and underfundedthough a case could be made for every one of those points. By obsolete, I mean that our high schoolseven when they are working exactly as designedcannot teach our kids what they need to know today."
Gates went on to address the dangers of an uneducated work force, warning that his and other major corporations would not hire young people without a college diploma. Making matters worse, Gates explained, was the racial disparity in public education, with students in middle- and upper-class and mostly white school districts studying Algebra II while students in low-income and mostly black or Hispanic districts learn how to balance a checkbook. He challenged the governors to devote more resources to high school reform, and specifically to create smaller high schools where students would receive more personal attention. Gates, after all, had been devoting his own time and money to improve the country's high schools through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which over the last six years had given out over $1 billion in education grants.
In December 2000, Gates had turned his attention to the country's largest and one of its most troubled urban school districtsNew York City. Partnering with the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Institute, he pledged $30 million over a five-year period to help New York City open 20 new small high schools. Instead of new buildings for these new schools, the education department would reduce enrollment in 10 larger, existing public high schools and place the new schools within the larger school buildings. These would be schools within schools.
But the way that money has actually reached students has confused teachers, parents, and administrators, with grants funneling through nonprofit organizations and requiring approval from the city's department of education. Instead of giving the grant to the city's education department, the Gates Foundation gave money directly to an independent group called the New Century High Schools Initiative, a project of New Visions for Public Schools, a New York City nonprofit organization that has been advocating for school reform since 1989. New Visions then invited educational organizations and teachers to submit proposals for new schools. One year later, in the summer of 2001, New Visions reviewed proposals and, in the fall, administered the grant money to fund the planning stage and implementation process for the proposed new schools. After getting the department of education's approval, the schools could then recruit students and open their doors in the fall of 2002.
Evelyn with her mother, Debbie, after her graduation ceremony from Bronx Guild, held at the New York Botanical Garden this past June. Evelyn took a commemorative rose and distributed its petals to her friends, teachers, boyfriend, and aunt, and gave the stem and remaining petals to her mom.
photo: courtesy Evelyn Cabrera
Evelyn Cabrera's school, the Bronx Guild in the Soundview neighborhood, was one of 12 that opened that year, the first group born of the New Century High Schools Initiative. During the 20052006 school year, Evelyn was one of 52 seniorsor "Destinations," as the Bronx Guild calls themin the school's first graduating class, the class of 2006.
Since he signed his first grant check in December 2000, Gates has donated over $100 million more to New York City schools. With so much private money involved in school reform, some education policy experts, parents, and teachers criticize the city's commitment to opening small schools, worrying about the fate of students stuck in the large, still-failing high schools and wondering about the level of public accountability the education department can have. Small-school proponents say the reform has to start somewhere, and argue that the department of education will be held more accountable when it receives private money. If the schools don't do their job, they say, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg (himself a billionaire) and his schools chancellor, Joel Klein, will have a harder time soliciting more donations.
The views of corporate leaders, policy makers, and politicians aside, 267,000 students attend (or are at least supposed to be attending) public high school in New York City. They experience the short-term results of these policy debates each day. And when it comes time to decide whether the Bill Gates way is the right way to reform schools, policy makers might do well to consider the experience of one of Gates's earliest beneficiariesEvelyn Cabrera.
Before the fire, life was just beginning to become more stable for Evelyn at last, after years of conflict at home and schoolall of which started when she was 13 and her parents divorced. At home, she would sit alone in her room. At her parochial middle school, she refused to talk to her teachers or her classmates. The year before, when she was in sev-enth grade, before her mother, Debbie, moved out of the house, she had been on the honor roll. But her grades dropped after she stopped turning in her homework assignments.