Gates Foundation gives $21 mil. to schools

Fran Spielman
April 18, 2006

Freshmen at 14 Chicago public high schools will have a more challenging and engaging curriculum in English, math and science -- and better-trained teachers -- thanks to a $21 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

It's the largest single grant the Gates Foundation has awarded to a local school district. It will start small this fall then pave the way for curriculum changes at 50 high schools over the next three years.

If high school really is "boring," as Mayor Daley complained it was three years ago, it won't be for much longer. "The impact of this grant will be long-lasting. We will take what we learn and apply it across the entire system over the next few years so that all of our children will benefit," Daley told a news conference at Crane Technical Preparatory Commons, 2245 W. Jackson Blvd.

Schools CEO Arne Duncan said he could have implemented the curriculum changes at 60 schools in one fell swoop, but that would only have "perpetuated mediocrity."

"Starting small -- not schoolwide. Fourteen schools with freshmen, then growing a grade each year we think is the right way to do it -- not to perpetuate mediocrity, but to do something dramatically different," Duncan said.

'Extraordinarily powerful'

"We don't think the curriculum has been challenging enough. . . . Students are looking to be challenged more. . . . We have not done a good job of articulating why these classes will lead to their success later in life. . . . Having two or three different curricula in those subject areas that are world-class, that are benchmarked against local and state and national standards, giving teachers a chance to learn and work together -- we think that combination is gonna be extraordinarily powerful."

Last fall, a $2.3 million study financed by the Gates Foundation produced a radical blueprint to overhaul Chicago public high schools. The $50 million to $100 million plan called for new curriculum, new schools and a way to judge schools beyond test scores. The pivotal piece was new "instructional support packages" to improve English, math and science instruction. It included new curriculum aligned among grades and with state standards, intensive teacher training, equipment and assessments.

Changes debut this fall

Curriculum varies from school to school and, in some cases, from grade to grade. That leaves many students unprepared for state tests and out of sync if they transfer.

Now, the Gates Foundation has come up with the money to finance curriculum changes that will debut this fall at Bowen Environmental Studies Team; Carver Military Academy; Chicago Military Academy at Bronzeville; Clark Academic Prep; Crane; Dunbar Vocational; Dyett; Fenger Academy; John Hope College Prep; Kenwood Academy; Wendell Phillips; George Washington; School of the Arts, South Shore Campus and Moses Vines Preparatory Academy at Orr Campus.

Since the curriculum changes are still being developed, officials were vague about specifics. But, William S. Hadley, chief academic officer of Carnegie Learning, offered a sneak peak at the math component that his company is developing. It calls for students to spend two days a week on computer software instruction and three days in a collaborative classroom environment.