The man who helped put a personal computer on every desktop now wants to see more personalized high schools nationwide.

And Bill Gates’ billions may be enough to get it done–without the help of a single bureaucrat.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is offering Washington public high schools a deal: agree to chop yourself into a complex of independent smaller schools of no more than 600 students each, and get a windfall of around $500 per student.

On top of that, the Microsoft chairman’s foundation is offering $100 million worth of scholarships over the next 13 years–but only to students from the 10 to 15 selected schools.

“We hope that our investments have a catalytic impact” nationwide, Gates Foundation spokeswoman Carol Rava said. “That is the goal, that this conversation becomes as important as the one on class size.”

The program doesn’t specifically address class size. It’s aimed at helping minority and low-income students, who often get lost in the shuffle at schools with thousands of students, Rava said.

She cited recent studies that found “controlling the size of the school can lower poverty’s impact on achievement by up to 90 percent. That was one of the driving reasons behind this program.”

Schools can apply if 20 percent of their students are low-income.

“Big schools can become totally impersonal,” said Thomas Timar, an education professor at the University of California-Riverside. “Students get lost in them, particularly in urban areas where students tend to come from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Gates’ foundation is not the first to go directly to schools to promote reform, Timar noted, but it likely is the most ambitious effort by a single private donor.

“I can’t tell you how appreciative I am, because we can’t do it with our funding, our budget,” said Rosemary McAuliffe, education chairwoman in the Washington State Senate.

A Gates Foundation model for smaller schools that work is the Julia Richman Educational Complex on New York’s Upper East Side, which includes four independent high schools of 300 to 400 students, each in the same building.

“What we try to do is create a situation where the kids have some options, where they’ve really been able to get to know adults well, and they know where to go to ask for help,” said Ann Cook, principal of the Urban Academy in the complex, which receives Gates grant money.

About two-thirds of the Urban Academy’s students are low-income, Cook said. But it consistently ranks near the top of New York public high schools in graduation rates, with around 90 percent of graduates going on to college.

The foundation also funds the Small Schools Project, an information clearinghouse for small high school projects nationwide. And it makes grants like a recent one of $15 million to a small high schools effort in Oakland, Calif.

In Washington state, school administrators were weighing the foundation’s easy money against the effort it would take to create smaller, independent schools on their campuses.

“It’s very appealing,” said Cheryl Chow, former Seattle City Councilwoman and now principal at Seattle’s Garfield High School, which has 1,740 students.

“But the time crunch, the timeline expectation is a big challenge for us,” she said, noting the foundation’s Feb. 23 deadline for grant applications.

John Jackson, principal at Seattle’s Franklin High School, said the offer looked too good to pass up.

“They’re looking at closing the achievement gap, and in this age of standards-based education, we can use all the assistance we can get,” Jackson said.

Franklin has about 1,560 students. At $500 per student, that works out to a grant of about $780,000 over five years for redesign, plus an additional $100 per student for early-college awareness programs.

Chopping schools down to size should not mean adding more teachers or staff, and it should not require significant construction, the foundation says.

Grants will be doled out over five years, with 20 percent in the first year for planning, 30 percent in years two and three for actually breaking up schools, and 10 percent in years four and five for follow-up work. The foundation will give technical help throughout the process.

Deron Boyles, a professor at Georgia State University who studies minority education issues, stressed that if the program is aimed at helping minority students, it must include curriculum and other changes.

“Are the minority students still subjected to a curriculum that doesn’t show their faces or have their voices?” he asked. “I don’t think smaller schools alone is any sort of answer.”

The achievers program doesn’t require specific curriculum changes, but Jackson said Franklin High School has addressed course content with funding from another Gates Foundation grant.

About 500 scholarships will be awarded each year to low-income students at participating schools. Scholarships will cover four years of expenses, after federal grants and other aid have been awarded, to a maximum of $5,400 per year at state colleges and $6,400 at private schools.

The Gates Foundation, with an endowment of some $22 billion, is the world’s largest charitable foundation. It has focused on education and global basic health, last year doling out $995 million in grants, scholarships, and other funding.

Last year, the foundation pledged $350 million over the next three years toward improving K-12 education, including $100 million in state challenge grants for professional development activities for school leaders.

Links:

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
http://www.gatesfoundation.org

Small Schools Project
http://smallschoolsproject.org