Thursday, October 20, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gates Foundation exec pans Seattle school district

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today announced it's renewing fewer than half the school-district grants that were part of its first round of education giving five years ago, and Seattle didn't make the cut.

The Highline School District will get $5.6 million from the foundation, the largest grant it has ever received. But Seattle's nearly $26 million grant, launched with fanfare in 2000, is one of six that will not be continued.

The foundation's push for smaller high schools will also move down its list of priorities.

In choosing districts, the foundation selected those that "have a really good record of improvement, have enjoyed stable and effective leadership, and had a really good plan going forward," said Tom Vander Ark, the foundation's executive director for education giving. "And none of those apply in Seattle."

Seattle hasn't lost all its money yet — it spread its initial five-year grant over six years. The foundation and the district continue to talk. But it's likely that, at the end of this school year, Seattle will no longer have the roughly $4 million a year that it has used to help train teachers, give them time to plan school improvements and upgrade technology.

Seattle officials acknowledge that the district's financial woes and leadership changes have impeded its progress in the last few years.

"Like it or not, the [district's] focus was a little bit off from what we are really here to do," said Superintendent Raj Manhas. But he said he's hopeful the foundation will give Seattle more money sometime soon.

"We have some work to do, and we will do it, and hopefully we'll get help as we move forward," he said. "I've been pretty direct with Tom. They cannot walk away from us."

Five years ago, Seattle was first on the list of the districts to get grants when the Gates Foundation launched a mammoth $350 million effort to support school improvement here and across the nation.

Since then, the foundation has given education gifts totaling more than $2.4 billion — including college scholarships — and narrowed its focus almost exclusively to high schools.

Washington state still receives the most money from the foundation's education division, although other states are catching up — especially New York.

This new round of Washington district grants is smaller than before — a total of $11.8 million over the next four years. But the districts will be among about two to three dozen districts that the foundation plans to work with closely over the next few years as it continues to search for ways to help schools raise graduation rates, and college-entrance rates for high-school students.

"It's our hope that these districts will be models of high performance," Vander Ark said. "Or at least point the way by demonstrating significant improvement."

Highline was a new grant recipient. The other districts, who had received grants before, are: Bellingham ($2.1 million), Kennewick ($3 million), Nooksack Valley ($686,000) and tiny Mabton ($386,000).

There was no application process; the foundation simply approached the districts it wanted.

Each will use the grants in different ways.

In the Yakima County community of Mabton, the money will, among other things, let the district expand teacher training, hire a math coach and be able to let teachers spend time one-on-one with struggling students.

In Bellingham, the district will add coaches for high-school teachers and increase the rigor of middle- and high-school courses. In Highline, the money also will help it beef up math instruction and make changes in high schools — although not necessarily breaking up all its high schools into smaller units.

All of the new grants, along with an additional $2 million to the state to help five struggling school districts, reflect some new directions for the foundation, Vander Ark said.

On Vander Ark's list of "mistakes" made the first time around: The grants were too broad and too ambitious, he said. The foundation expected districts could, with a little extra money, improve all their schools and their central operations, all in five years.

"It was silly," Vander Ark said, "to try to fix everything all at once."

The grants were too proscriptive about how districts should improve. The new ones are more specific about the ends, he said.

In Highline, for example, the grant outlines goals for test scores and graduation rates.

The new grants also place more emphasis than before on improving classroom instruction. And perhaps most striking, the foundation is no longer pushing districts to break up large high schools into a number of small, autonomous units — at least at first.

In too many places, Vander Ark said, the difficult work of breaking up schools into smaller units "monopolized the agenda," and schools didn't get around to improving what happened in the classroom — which was the whole point to begin with.

For a while, the foundation thought small was a necessary first step toward better high schools, and the ideal was that big schools would break up into a kind of education multiplex, with small schools that operated entirely independent of each other.

Small high schools weren't a requirement in the original district grants, but they were for a number of later grants to individual high schools, including Mountlake Terrace in the Edmonds School District, Mariner High in the Mukilteo district and three high schools in Tacoma.

The results convinced Vander Ark that going small is a difficult, and sometimes disruptive, first step.

The experience at Mountlake Terrace High is perhaps emblematic. Terrace went from a suburban school of 1,750 to five academies grouped around themes such as technology and the performing arts. After two full years under the new model, the reviews were mixed.

"The one thing we taught [the Gates Foundation] is that this work is really difficult," said Mountlake Terrace Principal Greg Schwab.

Highline Superintendent John Welch said he had deep discussions with the foundation before it pursued its grant, worried that the foundation would insist that every school break up into smaller units.

One of Highline's high schools has done so, he said, but not all of them necessarily will. And he thinks those decisions should be made by a district, school and community.

Kennewick Superintendent Paul Rosier agreed, saying school structure should be based on what's needed to help students succeed, and it will look different in different places.

Vander Ark isn't backing away from small schools altogether. "I doubt we'll have a district partnership that doesn't include efforts to change the structure of the high school to make it more personalized," he said.

But he now believes it's best to start by improving instruction.

"It took our districts grantees a couple of years to figure out that's what the focus should be and to help us figure out what the focus should be," he said.

All 10 of the Washington public school districts that received grants in 2000 have made some progress, Vander Ark said, including Seattle, where most of the money went to individual schools to create a "transformation plan."

And he said a number of individual Seattle schools made great gains.

(A separate grant to Cleveland High will continue through this June, and the scholarships that are part of it will continue longer.)

Robin Pasquarella, president of the Alliance for Education, which oversees Seattle's grant, said it doesn't make sense for Seattle to get another grant until its current one is used up. She said the foundation appeared to be taking a wait-and-see stance, watching what will happen as the district makes hard decisions about how to get its expenses in line.

Foundation officials, she said, "have made it clear they want to see what's going to happen before they make any major new investments."

The other districts that won't get new grants include Enumclaw in South King County, and Spokane.

Mike Nelson, an assistant superintendent in Enumclaw, said his district was not told why it didn't receive a new grant but was grateful to get the first one.

The foundation also won't be giving any more grants to individual schools in Washington, and likely won't add any more schools to its "Achievers" program, of which Cleveland is a part. In the 16 "Achiever" schools, the foundation offered a certain number of college scholarships to low-income students each year. In exchange, the schools had to commit to breaking themselves into smaller units.

Seattle Times staff reporters Nick Perry and Lynn Thompson contributed to this report.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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