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Grant Will Help L.A. Unified Plan for Smaller High Schools

November 19, 2003|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced Tuesday it would provide a $900,000 planning grant to aid the Los Angeles Unified School District's efforts to create smaller high schools that emphasize personalized learning.

The grant is expected to be followed by a more significant gift from the foundation once the district has established a clear plan for creating "smaller learning communities" -- either building new, smaller schools or dividing existing schools into groupings of a few hundred students.

Los Angeles School Supt. Roy Romer said he expected the district to have a plan in place by June 30.

Los Angeles is one of the last large urban districts to embrace the move to small schools -- a popular trend in educational reform circles. Some research has shown that students in smaller schools are more likely to finish high school and attend college, and that large impersonal schools can exacerbate low achievement and poor graduation rates, especially for students from minority communities.

In the last few months, Romer has pushed the district to adopt "smaller learning communities" in both middle and high schools as a way to encourage students not to drop out. The district's largest high schools have as many as 5,000 students per campus.

Many of the 120 new schools the district hopes to build over the next 10 years are being designed to reflect a focus on small learning communities, said Romer. And a $3.8-billion bond to fund school construction that will appear on the ballot in March includes $88 million for redesigning and upgrading current campuses so that relatively small groups of students -- typically 400 to 500 per cluster -- have some separate facilities.

The district also is looking to its magnet and academy programs as models of successful small schools and plans to borrow ideas from other large urban school districts that have partnerships with businesses, museums, hospitals and universities.

"There's no recipe for this," Romer said. But the gift, he said, is "the first step in helping us in making high schools more efficient."

The Gates Foundation, started by the man who founded Microsoft, has given about $590 million to help school districts -- including those in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. -- build smaller schools. New York City will receive $58 million toward opening 87 smaller high schools before 2007. Chicago has received $24 million, which it will use to build 32 regular and four charter schools in the next five years.

L.A. is a place of "sprawling need," said Tom Vander Ark, executive director of education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has an endowment of about $25 billion.

The school district, he said, has already made significant progress in school reform -- raising test scores and taking the first steps toward relieving school overcrowding with the planning and construction of new schools. The Gates gift, he said, is in part a response to that momentum.

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