There's probably a book that could be written about what went wrong with the Gates-funded effort to transform Cleveland High School into four small "academies.">"/>
There's probably a book that could be written about what went wrong with the Gates-funded effort to transform Cleveland High School into four small "academies." When I was at the school last week researching a story about the Southeast Education Initiative, teachers complained that the effort never had sufficient resources given the expense of creating four mini-schools. Marie Groark, spokesperson for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, counters that funding has been ongoing at the school (where only two weak academies remain) but talks instead about "lessons learned" in the small schools effort.
Contrary to numerous reports (like this recent one in The Seattle Times), Groark insists "we have not backed away from small schools. In the last year, we have given more than $115 million around the country to create small schools." But she says the foundation is no longer giving grants directly to individual schools, as it did with Cleveland, due to a recognition that school transformations are hard to pull off without district and state buy-in. Now the foundation is funding either districts, as it did with New York City, or big organizations, like Green Dot Public Schools, which with Gates help is creating a number of charter schools in Los Angeles.
Would either more funding or district support for small schools have helped the Cleveland effort? One of the interesting things I heard from some teachers there is that they feel they have been doomed by the district's choice system. They say that balance in the student population--and just numbers of students, period-- were lost when the neighborhood's high achievers started choosing other schools with better reputations.
Yet, this is precisely what was supposed to happen under the tenure of the charismatic former Superintendent John Stanford, who supported the kind of "market-driven" reforms that could be found in places with charter schools. If schools, by virtue of their performance, couldn't attract students, so be it; they were supposed to wither and die. The current movement by some district folks to scale back choice represents a repudiation of that legacy. At the same time, it's true that we got a half-baked version of that concept. Schools were left to wither indefinitely without being closed, giving us the worst of both worlds. Where the new superintendent, Maria Goodloe-Johnson, stands on choice remains to be seen, but as the Southeast Education Initiative shows, she does seem willing to close--or at least dramatically "reconstitute"--low-enrollment schools.