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“BILL GATES’ GUINEA PIGS”: An In-Depth Look at High School Transformation Through the Eyes of a Gates Grantee

"Many of the schools are spending two years figuring out what to do, and another two years making structural changes."

In fall 1999, Mountlake Terrace High School in Washington State accepted an $833,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to divide up its large comprehensive high school of about 1,800 students into separate parts. In the years since, the Gates Foundation has invested nearly $1 billion in more than 1,600 schools in its effort to help redesign the American high school. A recent article in the Seattle Weekly News provides an in-depth look at the changes that Mountlake Terrace underwent during the transformation process.

After two years of planning, Mountlake Terrace was ready to divide into five new schools. All of them would continue to offer a basis in English, math, science, and history, but they would go about it in different ways. During the first year in the smaller schools, students commented how wonderful it was to know all of the other students, and teachers appreciated the chance to get to know their students on a more personal level. According to the article, the smaller schools also allowed closer tracking of individual students, but many programs were duplicated from school to school and resources such as rooms or calculators got “overbooked.” Almost immediately, students typecast the individual small schools as “stoner,” “jock,” “geek,” “preppy,” or even “gangsta,” or “druggie” schools.

In the article, Tom Vander Ark, executive director of education initiatives for the Gates Foundation, conceded that conversion from a large, comprehensive high school to smaller learning communities was very slow and very different from what had been expected. “Many of the schools are spending two years figuring out what to do, and another two years making structural changes,” he said. “They never get to the heart of the matter, which is improving teaching and learning . . . It’s probably more important to improve the curriculum, the school culture, the relationships in the school.”

While it is still too early to make any final conclusions, the article notes that educators and the Gates Foundation are learning some critical lessons about the transformation process. In the end, however, the foundation’s concern is that the momentum for high school reform and redesign will not last after the initial funding dries up. “Bill and Melinda have already committed $1 billion,” Vander Ark said. “They are likely to commit another billion. But that’s just 5 to 10 percent of what it’ll take just to address the high-school challenge. When you add in all the other schools, it’s going to take a lot more than the Gates Foundation to solve this problem.”

The complete article is available at

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