Aiding High Schools at Risk
With the help of private donors and community foundations, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is stepping in to address the nation’s shockingly high dropout rate.
It may come as a shock to many Americans that an alarming epidemic is silently spreading through the nation’s schools at an overwhelming pace. The high school dropout rate has grown to record proportions. One-third of all high school students are dropping out without earning their diplomas. In minority communities this number is even worse, with half the students ending up as dropouts. Now, in an ambitious effort to improve high school education across the U.S., the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is devoting hundreds of millions of dollars to publicizing and combating this silent epidemic.
A Profound Problem
The implications of this crisis are very unsettling. For the students themselves, the lack of a high school diploma correlates directly with drastically reduced opportunities and earning power. On average, a high school dropout earns $10,000 less per year than a graduate, which adds up to about half a million dollars over a lifetime. But the impacts reach far beyond reduced earnings. In 2004, for example, three-fourths of all high school dropouts were unemployed, and those without diplomas were also more likely than their peers to be incarcerated, receive government assistance, or live in poverty.
The impacts on society are equally troubling. The country’s economic competitiveness is contingent on a skilled workforce. Yet, more and more businesses report difficulty finding workers with the skills to perform the jobs of the 21st century; by some estimates the nation will be short 14 million college-educated workers by 2020. Dropouts are also less likely to vote or volunteer in their communities.
A Little Less Silent
Raising awareness of this crisis is one of the key steps to addressing it, which is why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been aggressive in calling attention to the silent epidemic. “What was apparent to us when we started doing work in education was that the country actually has started to do a good job of focusing on a lot of aspects of education reform because of the standards movements,” says Jim Shelton, program director of the education division at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “But as we continued to look, what we realized was that nobody was talking about the actual graduation rate.”
The Gates Foundation is not content with simply publicizing the issue. It is also contributing hundreds of millions of dollars toward initiatives to improve the quality of public education and reduce the dropout rate, which it feels are inextricably linked. Part of its approach is based on a new definition of the three Rs:
• Rigor: Many dropouts report that they would have been more likely to stay in school if their coursework had been more challenging. The Gates Foundation believes that students should succeed at challenging subjects such as algebra, chemistry, and writing.
• Relevance: The foundation strongly advocates a curriculum that includes courses that resonate and are useful to students in our rapidly changing world.
• Relationships: Students excel when they have adult mentors who support them. At the same time, teachers can also help students more efficiently once they learn more about them. “When a set of four teachers can say, ‘We share the same 75 to 100 students,’ they can sit down and do real problem-solving about each student and what their needs are and how they can best serve them,” says Shelton.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach for incorporating these elements into the school system nationwide. But the Gates Foundation is very supportive of initiatives that create small schools, either by building them new or by converting large, old ones. In Ohio, for instance, the Gates Foundation has partnered with the KnowledgeWorks Foundation in its effort—called the Ohio School Transformation Initiative—to transform some the state’s largest, poorest-performing urban schools into small, autonomous institutions of approximately 400 students each.
Harold Brown, vice president of school improvement at KnowledgeWorks, says that while they’re not a panacea, small schools are particularly effective at boosting the performance of students from urban areas where schools have a high ongoing failure rate. “The teachers, the counselors, and the principals have to know each kid and can’t just warehouse them, as we have been doing,” says Brown. “The data shows that for poor students in our urban areas, smaller schools tend to lead to better results, especially around keeping them in school, retaining them, and graduating them.”
How Donors Can Help
Fully addressing and solving this silent epidemic will require the hard work and cooperation of students, parents, schools, governments, nonprofits, and communities. For donors who wish to get involved in high school education, local community foundations are an excellent resource. “A community foundation can certainly be helpful because we have a good relationship with superintendents and principals to know what the needs in education are,” says Gloria Royal, vice president of marketing communications for the Kalamazoo Community Foundation.
In Cincinnati, for example, The Greater Cincinnati Foundation responded to the racially tinged riots of 2001 by rethinking how to address some of the racial inequities that prompted the violence. “The importance of improving public education became of paramount importance,” says Kathryn Merchant, president and CEO of the foundation. She and her board approached the school superintendent to see how they could help. The result: This past June, The Greater Cincinnati Foundation announced an initiative to develop community learning centers that will provide student and family support services in each of the city’s schools.
Fundamentally changing, and improving, public education in the U.S. is clearly a monumental task. But it’s also vital. “I think it’s fair to say the future of this country depends solely on renewing our commitment to education,” Bill Gates said during a recent television appearance. Fortunately, it’s a challenge that many Americans are realizing and finally making a priority.
Chris Warren, a former editor for Los Angeles Magazine, is a freelance writer based in Santa Monica, Calif.
Copyright 2006 Community Foundations of America
Used with Permission