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The Human Cost

Milwaukee was part of a nationwide, $2 billion Gates grant to create small schools. The project was killed, displacing students and stalling reform. This article asks Why?

by John Rondy

It should have been a happy occasion.

Tom Vander Ark, the executive director of education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, had come to town in the summer of 2003 to finalize the details of a prestigious $17 million grant to create 50 new small high schools in Milwaukee. The foundation had been impressed with the wide variety of schools in the city, and the seemingly unanimous commitment of public and private school leaders to the new project. Optimism was high, both in Milwaukee and across the nation, that the fabled wealth of Bill Gates could help accomplish change in the thorny field of education.

But as Dan Grego drove Vander Ark back to General Mitchell International Airport, he was struck by his passenger’s reserve. Grego, a 30-year veteran of alternative education, had been chosen to lead the initiative in Milwaukee. He had fond hopes of ending the longtime war between public education and voucher advocates, and radically altering the traditional organizational model for high schools. He found himself waiting for something momentous, some words of wisdom from Vander Ark, a former business executive and former school superintendent who was now running this new national education project. But between the monotonous whining and whooshing of the I-94 traffic, Vander Ark wasn’t saying much.

Finally, just as he was leaving the car, he offered a rather ambiguous benediction. "I guess," Vander Ark said with a chuckle, "you just got yourself in for a helluva five years."

Grego was taken aback. "It felt a little chilling," he recalls. He couldn't help remembering Yoda's warning in Star Wars after Luke Skywalker said he wasn’t afraid: "Oh, you will be," Yoda replied. "You will be."

Today, some seven years later, the extraordinary $2 billion initiative -- which created 2,600 new small schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia -- has been ditched by Gates and his foundation. School districts across the nation were left disrupted, with some charging that Gates had abandoned the successful good schools he created and Gates citing statistics showing the project failed. Gates has now moved on to funding a completely different approach involving teacher education, and Vander Ark no longer works with the foundation.

Locally, enthusiasm for the small school movement has also waned, particularly among leaders of Milwaukee Public Schools. For Grego and others involved in creating 42 new schools from scratch, there is a feeling of betrayal -- and a conviction that policymakers are walking away from an approach with tremendous promise. It turns out that Vander Ark was right: There was good reason for Grego to be afraid.

Shalom High School is located in an old three-story building, a one-time Lutheran facility on 16th and Walnut. Dan Grego, 58, has a not-very-impressive office but seems focused on more substantive issues. He is an unusual blend of wry, practical tactician and poetic visionary. "One of his main interests," his online biography states, "is exploring the confluence of the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, Ivan Illich and Wendell Berry."

Grego became director of Shalom, a nonsectarian alternative high school, in 1981, and went on to create two other alternative schools, the Northwest Opportunities Vocational Academy (NOVA) and El Puente High School. As executive director of TransCenter for Youth Inc., he oversees all three schools. All have fewer than 110 students.

"I think the thing that makes Dan tick is how much he cares about kids," says Howard Fuller, who runs Marquette University's Institute for the Transformation of Learning. "I know how relentless he is in trying to help kids in this community."

Grego has long been a passionate advocate of small schools, so it was music to his ears when Bill Gates declared that America's schools needed to shrink in size. "America's high schools are obsolete," Gates declared in a February 2005 speech to the National Governors Association.

For most of its history, Grego notes, America didn't have big schools. The move toward large, “comprehensive” high schools sped up after the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, raising fears that America was falling behind educationally. Former Harvard President James B. Conant's best-selling book The American High School Today called for the consolidation of schools into units big enough to offer specialized instruction in math and science. America got the message, and the average size of schools increased by 300 percent after 1960, with many inner-city schools ballooning to 3,000 students.

In his 1976 book The Sorting Machine Revisited, author Joel Spring described the nation's educational approach as one that divided adolescents into two groups: the elites that would go on to college and professional occupations, and those destined for factories and blue-collar jobs. Under the sorting model, academic success for all youth was not a priority. But as manufacturing jobs migrated abroad and away from cities like Milwaukee, it became clear that American schools were operating with an outdated model.

"We were shifting to more of a knowledge-based economy and needed to do something different," Grego says. "We had mass-produced a machine to make Dixie cups, and now we were asking that same machine to produce Waterford crystal."

Certainly the model wasn't working in Milwaukee. By the time Gates launched his small schools initiative in 2003, 90 percent of high school-age students in Milwaukee Public Schools attended 15 large comprehensive high schools, some with more than 2,000 students, with dismal results. One of every four MPS high school students failed to pass enough courses and earn enough credits to move on to the next grade. Average attendance was 78 percent, the high school grade point average was a D-plus, and one-third of students failed all their courses. The graduation rate was 55 percent -- with fewer than 20 percent of African-American males graduating -- the worst rate in the U.S. at the time.

Meanwhile, in response to its underperforming public schools, Milwaukee has become a national center for educational choice. Private voucher schools and charter schools serve more than 25,000 children in Milwaukee. Legislation funding such schools began to get passed in 1990, which helped Grego to create NOVA and El Puente.

"If we want different outcomes from schools, we are not going to get there by using the same approaches we used in 1955 -- it just isn't going to work," Grego says.

Except for the charter schools that were part of MPS, the choice and charter schools were freed of the MPS bureaucracy and the Milwaukee teachers’ union. But another factor that made them different is they were often smaller than MPS schools.

A wide body of research has shown that small schools have better outcomes, and a school's size is far more important than the size of its classes. As Mary Fulton, policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, once put it: "Research shows smaller schools have higher test scores, less absenteeism, lower dropout rates, less violence and vandalism, better student attitudes, better student-faculty relationships, and stronger ties to the community -- all of which are associated with improved student achievement."

A 1999 study of 13,600 schools in four states by researchers Craig Howley and Robert Bickel found the positive impact of small schools on student achievement was most pronounced for students from a low socioeconomic background.

Echoing this research, Bill Gates told National Public Radio that smaller schools enable teachers to get to know their students better. "The idea is to create an environment where there's a strong relationship between the students and teachers," Gates explained. "When a kid walks down a hall and encounters an adult, that adult will know their name and understand whether they're supposed to be doing something else â€Â¦ and be able to talk to them about their progress."

"For too long we have relied on an outdated model to educate our young people,” Gates declared in announcing funding for New York City -- and small schools were the answer.

There may be no city in America with a wider variety of schools and education options than Milwaukee, which might have made it seem a logical choice for more experimentation. William Andrekopoulos, then the MPS superintendent, stressed that point in a number of phone calls he made to Gates' foundation to sell Milwaukee. "We put a lot of pressure on them to get that grant and to show them Milwaukee had a history of developing smaller schools," Andrekopoulos recalls.

Equally important was that all the stakeholders in Milwaukee had coalesced around the small school initiative. When Vander Ark came to Milwaukee in early 2003, he encountered an enthusiastic reception -- from the business sector, led by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce; from the academic community, led by then-UW-Milwaukee chancellor Nancy Zimpher; from Milwaukee Public Schools; and from the school choice and charter school advocates, led by Howard Fuller.

"All of those players coming together is what impressed Vander Ark to go back to Gates and make this large grant to a relatively small city," Grego recalls.

"I was surprised at the warm reception I got from them -- they were very interested in Milwaukee," Andrekopoulos says. "They viewed me as a reformer, we had a reform-minded school board, and they knew there was a lot of reform work going on in Milwaukee with respect to small schools. They were also familiar with Howard Fuller."

Fuller, a former MPS superintendent, has a national reputation as a public school leader who now champions nonpublic choice and charter schools as the solution for minority students, and in particular, African-American students. "If Howard wouldn't have endorsed the effort, the grant wouldn't have happened," Grego remembers Vander Ark telling him.

In July 2003, Vander Ark returned to Milwaukee to announce the city would be awarded $17.25 million. The goal was ambitious: to create 50 new small high schools of 400 students or less, to prove that small is indeed beautiful.

It's all business at Carmen High School of Science & Technology. The almost-entirely Latino student body is required to wear a business casual uniform, with the boys dressed smartly in shirts and ties. The up-to-date technology used in virtually every classroom -- computers and laptops for the students, and smartboards (the 21st-century version of chalkboards) for the teachers -- stands in contrast to the well-worn surroundings of the century-old school building.

Carmen is located at 32nd and Mitchell in the former home of Walker Middle School, long a classic example of a large, not-very-effective public school. Carmen is another story entirely, a small, "non-instrumentality" MPS charter school (meaning it need not use union teachers) with just 179 students, all drawn from the surrounding neighborhood of mostly low-income families. It has the feel of an old grade school with intimate hallways and large windows. Students and teachers all know each other, discipline is not an issue, and security officers are not necessary. The school has an average attendance rate of 95 percent.

Carmen's leadership is nontraditional. It was started in August 2007 by Patricia Hoben, who has doctorates in biochemistry and biophysics from Yale and was a major player in Washington, D.C., policymaking. She was a key adviser in the Department of Health and Human Services and headed the precollege and public science education program at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, helping determine which research projects it would fund. Hoben and her husband later moved to the Twin Cities, where she became manager of a $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to improve science education there, as well as associate director of a science museum.

After moving here with her husband in 1999, Hoben obtained her teaching certification. She had long nurtured the idea of starting a school, and the Gates initiative provided the opportunity. Hoben had once shaped education reform from the top down; now she would try to do this working from the bottom up.

Her small cadre of committed teachers place a continual emphasis on preparing for college, and advisory classes keep students focused on their goals. Carmen students are required to take four years each of English, science, math and history, three years of Spanish and two semesters of fine arts. They are also required to work or intern in local corporations or nonprofits for 40 hours each year.

"If you look at Marquette High and Riverside, it doesn’t look all that different, except that our students come in at a much lower level," Hoben says. The average incoming student is at a low seventh-grade reading and math level, with some kids as low as the third-grade level. "You are basically asking us to boost the average student three full years in the first year, and that is just not the dilemma here, but nationally," she says. "We are moving them at least a year forward, and in many cases, much more than that."

By the time they take their ACT tests, Carmen students rank fourth among MPS high schools, trailing only Reagan, Rufus King and Veritas (which is no longer an MPS school) in the results for 2010, Hoben says. Unlike the three schools it trails in the college entrance test results, Carmen does not require students to take an admission test.

"When you have a smaller school like we do where the teachers and administrators know the students' names, when a student isn’t doing well, it becomes personal to everyone involved," she says. "The student's success or failure becomes everyone’s ownership."

Juniors Elizabeth Castillo and Fabiola Ramirez both transferred to Carmen because they sought a more challenging environment. When Castillo struggled in chemistry at Reagan High School and asked her teacher for help, she was told "tough luck, you should have been paying attention in class," she says. At Carmen, which has less than a quarter of Reagan’s enrollment, Castillo got an A in chemistry.

"That's because my teacher asked me to tell her what I didn't understand and stayed after to help me," Castillo says. "Even though some teachers here have their own kids or something else to do, they're willing to stay after school and help us. And they're always challenging us to do something way harder."

Ramirez says she decided to leave Advanced Language & Academic Studies (ALAS), a bilingual school on the South Side that two of her siblings attended, because she had too much free time in class. The teachers, she felt, were more interested in being her friend than pushing her to learn.

"I came here because a friend told me she struggles here, that the teachers really push you," says Ramirez. "She got me permission to shadow the school, and I was amazed at all the work and effort they put in. We have big dreams, but we know here at Carmen, we are going to accomplish them.”

One of the most difficult challenges in starting a new school is to develop a consistent culture, Grego says. Research shows this can take several years to develop.

"I think for a school to be successful, it has to be like a symphony orchestra," he says. "It has to be playing the same piece of music, and everyone has to be in tune. There has to be common agreement about what you are trying to do, and you have to develop relationships among yourselves so you are in tune and working well together. Otherwise, it’s just noise."

One of the first cities to gain funding from the Gates initiative was Baltimore, which matched a $12 million grant from the group with $8 million more from 10 area foundations. The city's project to create small schools promised to “transform our high schools into beacons of reform,” declared Carmen V. Russo, CEO of the Baltimore City Public School System.

An impressed Andrekopoulos went to Baltimore to tour the schools and later brought Russo to Milwaukee to provide advice. She emphasized the need to create a culture in the central administration that supported reform. With that in mind, Andrekopoulos created a new office within MPS run by Marty Lexmond that would oversee the small schools. Lexmond, a former MPS director of school redesign and innovation, recognized the challenge. "It could be overwhelming at times for the groups starting these schools," he says.

A group comprising Grego and his TALC staff, MPS representatives and the Milwaukee Partnership Academy (an independent nonprofit that works to secure funding for and improve MPS schools) reviewed 109 proposals. Fifty-six groups were awarded planning grants, and 42 new small schools were opened. Six were traditional MPS schools, 18 were instrumentality charters (MPS schools that use the system’s unionized teachers), two were non-instrumentality charters (like Carmen), four were independent charters, and 12 were private schools. Most of the schools were in some way a part of MPS.

Grego believes Andrekopoulos was committed to reform. "I think he really wanted to make a difference,” Grego says. "But I just felt the district wanted it both ways. They were thrilled to get the grant, but they didn't commit all the way they needed in order to make it work."

The separate office he created was helpful, Andrekopoulos says, "but bureaucracies tend to like a one-size-fits-all approach. So when you have new schools that have different operational and educational aspects, that does create some problems."

Grego says some changes were made too quickly. In the summer of 2003 after the grant was awarded, MPS rushed to create seven new schools, none of which went through the TALC training process. North Division High School, the worst academically performing high school in the state, was divided into three separate schools within the same building. Two of the reconstituted schools at North failed, while Genesis High School may soon be folded back into a larger North Division High School.

"They took North Division, which was terrible, and turned it into three schools which were more terrible than the old school," says Dan McKinley, executive director of Parents Advancing Values in Education, which funds and supports independent and private schools.

Washington High School was also broken down into several smaller schools. Those involved say the efforts to subdivide North and Washington were plagued by planning and governance issues.

Grego says the first schools were "fear-driven," with staff participating in the work because they feared losing their jobs. By contrast, he says, the schools that started from the ground up -- where teachers organized themselves around an idea they were passionate about -- stood a better chance of success.

Training -- or the lack of it -- was often the issue, says Andrekopoulos. "You need about 24 months to do the training and the planning, and we got better at it in the later stages. The major thing was getting the right people, the right teachers on the bus. It all goes back to having the right leadership."

Grego also complains that the MPS administration often assigned students to some of the specialized new high schools without regard for whether they wanted to be there. "What Dan couldn't understand," counters Andrekopoulos, "if I had 2,000 kids that didn't have school assignments, and their parents weren't engaged in the process, we looked at where there were openings." Sometimes that meant students were "force-assigned" to small schools, Andrekopoulos concedes, “and there wasn’t a good match between the kid and the school."

Both agree MPS needed to be more proactive in marketing the new small schools and getting the word out within the system. "As time went on, we got Student Services more involved in that," Andrekopoulos says.

Some believe the schools may have been too small. The research on small high schools suggests the optimum size is 400 to 800 students, but the Gates Foundation stipulated schools must be no bigger than 400 students. If it is too small, a school may lack enough staff to be able to offer a full component of curriculum offerings and enough revenue (which is paid on a per pupil basis) to support the upkeep of a facility and salary of a principal.

The financial issue is compounded for choice schools (which get just $6,442 per student in state aid) or charter schools ($7,775 per student), much less than the $13,000 per student for MPS (which gets both state aid and property tax support). The Gates initiative provided, on average, an additional $843 per pupil, but this still left challenges for choice and charter schools.

As McKinley notes, choice and charter schools inevitably must reach out for more resources from the community, whether that's foundation funding, individual donations or just volunteers to join the board or help assist with school programs. But a school serving a smaller number of families has fewer connections to the community and fewer potential supporters.

"Someone like Patricia Hoben at Carmen school has to work very hard, and she has to raise a lot of money and scrape for money to make that thing work, and that is just hard to sustain over time," McKinley notes.

But Grego contends there is no optimum size for a small school. "It may be run by a teacher cooperative, with no principal and no business manager." The right size, he says, depends on the kind of school you seek to create. Grego points to Inland Seas, a UWM charter school with a specialized Great Lakes emphasis, which had about 120 students. "I saw that school grow as an academic institution. They had really good academic numbers in the last year," Grego says.

But the school closed after five years in 2010, citing financial reasons. "That was really sad for me," Grego says.

The CEO Leadership Academy at 32nd and Brown has just 195 students. "We think our size is great from an education standpoint," says Howard Fuller, its board chair, "but it's a difficult financial model to sustain. If you look at the schools that are not part of MPS, they are not making it on just the per pupil allotment; they are raising significant amounts of additional money."

CEO's board is considering expanding the high school to a grades six-through-12 model and boosting the enrollment to 400 students. It would help increase financial resources and get kids in the door earlier to get them up to speed academically, Fuller says.

To Lexmond, the growing pains the Gates initiative encountered in Milwaukee were to be expected. "We knew going in that when you are trying to create new kinds of learning environments and schools, there is going to be some failure -- that is part of innovation." But others would not be so patient.

On Nov. 11, 2008, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation convened a meeting of the leading figures in American education to announce its candid disappointment that the small high schools initiative had not fulfilled its promise.

But as early as June 2006, it had become clear that Bill and Melinda Gates were beginning to back off from the project. "If you want to equate being naive with being inexperienced, then we were definitely naive when we first started," Melinda admitted to Business Week. Vander Ark told the magazine the project had put too much faith in simply making schools smaller.

The foundation's follow-up research on the project found good things: These smaller schools typically had a more welcoming culture, with higher attendance by students and more challenging assignments given to students. Yet the Gates-funded schools typically had lower test scores in reading and mathematics than the bigger, traditional schools. The percentage of students attending college after graduation at small schools was up by 2.5 percent after five years, which Bill Gates called disappointing.

But it's not clear that the research distinguished between newly created small schools and big traditional schools that had simply been divided into two or three, as had happened at North and Washington high schools in Milwaukee. "Simply breaking up existing schools into smaller units often did not generate the gains we were hoping for," Bill Gates noted. Starting from scratch is a lot easier than trying to repair old, failing schools, Vander Ark added.

To Grego, the foundation gave up way too early. "They drew a conclusion from some of the very first things that they did." But it takes time to build great schools, he contends.

Grego is convinced the new small schools helped increase the overall graduation rate in Milwaukee. "When we started the process in 2003, the rate was 55 percent, and when we finished in 2008, the rate was almost 73 percent."

Andrekopoulos agrees. "We found we had kids who had transferred from large schools, who felt they were going to be dropping out, but found their niche in smaller schools. I felt that had a significant impact on graduation rates."

Lexmond believes the Gates initiative led to innovations that wouldn't otherwise have happened. "You wouldn't have seen a school like Reagan (a college preparatory school on the South Side) getting off the ground. These were schools launched with new ideas."

But the loss of Gates' funding -- and wavering commitment from MPS -- has helped kill some of the small schools. The Milwaukee Learning Laboratory and Institute, a project-based, teacher-led school, closed in June 2010, though the percentage of sophomores rated as proficient or better was well above the MPS average in all five areas tested.

But the school faced a budget cut that would have reduced staff from nine to seven teachers in the 173-student school, and the staff decided it would be too tough to go on. "There's something about MPS that doesn't embrace innovation," former MLLI teacher David Coyle told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "It’s so hard to innovate in such a large organization."

Of the original 42 schools created here by the Gates initiative, 19 have since closed. The 23 schools that remain open this year had a combined enrollment of 5,226 students in 2009-2010, or roughly one-seventh of all students enrolled in Milwaukee high schools.

But Milwaukee School Board President Michael Bonds says the financial crisis facing the district (with substantial legacy costs to fund pensions and health insurance of retired teachers) may force it to abandon some small high schools. "You will see more consolidation and merging within the district," he predicts. "I think you will see some of the smaller schools merged back into the comprehensive high schools."

Grego bristles at this prediction. A good school is more than just a building, he contends. "It appears they are going back to that wonderful model that was successful for so many years."

New MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton did not respond to interview requests, but school board member Terrence Falk says Thornton is less interested in small schools than Andrekopoulos was, and notes that a school like Reagan, since the Gates money ended, has ballooned to more than 1,000 students.

Tony Evers, the superintendent of public instruction for Wisconsin, cites a 2009 study by the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research that found no difference in achievement levels for small schools versus large ones. "The notion that small is good -- end of story -- just didn't pan out," Evers says. "The Gates people have admitted that."

"The focus of MPS is now on the classroom," Evers continues, "making sure we have early intervention systems, that there are data systems in place, and there are high-quality teachers and good accountability systems."

And the focus of the Gates Foundation's educational funding is now devoted to "supporting new standards, curriculum, instructional tools and data that help teachers," Bill Gates noted in one speech.

So the world of American education seems to have moved on. "These fads can come and go in education," says McKinley. "We’ve seen every fad in Milwaukee."

Less than three years after the Gates Foundation began funding Milwaukee, its leaders began shifting the emphasis of the project. Vander Ark is long gone from the foundation and is now a partner in Vander Ark/Ratcliff, an education public affairs firm. Carmen Russo, the Baltimore schools leader [and Broad Center For Superintendents Class Of 2003] who vowed to turn the city's schools into beacons of reform, resigned in 2004, leaving behind a $58 million deficit. Andrekopoulos has retired. Lexmond is now the superintendent of Kohler Public Schools.

There was too little effort made, and it was all abandoned too soon, a disappointed Grego insists. "The story we are telling ourselves about what high school is -- we didn't change that story enough, in my opinion."

At the CEO Leadership Academy, the school's staff is still working to change the narrative. In 2010, 36 kids graduated from the school, and 32 were accepted into college. CEO graduates are now attending college at Pepperdine, Xavier, Bethune-Cookman, UWM, UW-Whitewater and Cardinal Stritch. Considering where many of these students have come from, it's a remarkable achievement.

"We got a mother who forced her kid to carry seven bags of marijuana into our school because she's a drug dealer and didn't want to get caught with it," Fuller says. Another student was thrown out of his home because he didn't intervene when his mother had a fight with her sister. "We have another kid whose mother cursed him out because he wanted to go to college. And her argument was, 'You think you’re better than the rest of us.'

"I could just go on with story after story," Fuller continues. "For a lot of these young people, we are the only support system they have. But if you create the right environment, you can reach these kids."

— John Rondy
Milwaukee Magazine





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