Tech foundations join in $130M education project

Charitable foundations established by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and Dell Inc. founder Michael Dell are combining to donate $55 million toward a massive statewide project to redesign and improve Texas high schools.

Gov. Rick Perry on Nov. 12 announced the $130 million “Texas High School Project” initiative, which calls for restructuring or building high schools in the state’s 140 districts, mostly in minority or low-income areas.

“It’s one of the largest public-private efforts of its kind aimed at improving public schools, and it couldn’t have come at a better time,” said Perry.

Contributions include $35 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, $20 million from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, $7 million from the Communities Foundation of Texas, and $2.5 million from an anonymous donor.

Another $65 million will come from state funds approved by lawmakers last spring.

Texas high schools will compete for grants to target such things as dropout rates, better teacher-student relationships, and stronger college-preparation programs. Charter schools also are eligible for the grants.

“The aim of this [program] is to aid struggling schools and create new schools in struggling communities,” said Tom Vander Ark, an executive director for the Gates Foundation.

Grants for 70 districts are expected to be awarded in February, with a second round to be allocated in September.

The five-year initiative will restructure high schools to meet rigorous curricula while providing a supportive learning environment. Goals include improving the student-counselor ratio and providing after-school programs, tutoring, and early intervention.

The initiative calls for breaking large schools into smaller learning environments. College-prep classes, already a focus, would become more prevalent.

New, smaller high schools will be built and patterned after successful models elsewhere, such as High Tech High School in San Diego, Calif., where nearly two-thirds of the students meet or exceed California’s math and English standards

Perry pointed to improvements Texas has made with elementary and middle schools in recent years. Now high schools need similar attention, he said.

Last year, 1,000 Texas high schools had less than 50 percent of their students pass all sections of the state Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test. Only about one-third of minority and low-income students passed the full test.

In Texas, only 80 percent of the ninth-graders in high school graduate, said state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who is on the Texas Senate Education Committee.

Nearly one-third of Texas high school graduates who attend college must take remedial courses–something Shapiro called “totally unacceptable.”

Yet some Texas high schools are making strides.

Susan Dell pointed to the Austin Independent School District, where one of their programs resulted in 95 percent of the students taking honors courses and a 100-percent graduation rate.

“We recognize that it’s this type of visionary and bold initiative that Texas must undertake to overcome the huge obstacles that are facing high school students,” Dell said.

The Gates Foundation funds education programs nationwide, but what attracted foundation officials to Texas, they said, was the need coupled with the leadership in place to undertake the massive overhaul.

Both tech giants have Texas connections. Dell is based in Round Rock, near Austin, and Melinda Gates is a Dallas native.

Perry pointed out that the Texas High School Project dovetails nicely into ongoing efforts, such as the push for Advanced Placement courses and test-taking.

“In the state of Texas, there are no second-class citizens, no second-rate dreams,” Perry said. “This high school reform plan will provide new resources and new tools to ensure students complete their studies, attend college, and achieve their dreams.”


Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Michael and Susan Dell Foundation

Communities Foundation of Texas

Office of Gov. Rick Perry

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