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Oakland Schools Awarded Grant

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will provide $9.5 million to create smaller high schools in the district.

March 18, 2004|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced Wednesday it would provide a $9.5-million grant to create smaller high schools in the financially troubled Oakland Unified School District.

The grant will fund the ongoing transition of three high schools into clusters of small academies and open five new small high schools by 2007. This is the second grant the district has received from the foundation since 2000, when it was awarded $15.7 million.

"We're really pleased with the continuing support and confidence that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is showing this school district," said Dr. Randolph E. Ward, the state administrator brought in to run Oakland schools last June when the district turned to the state for help with a $57-million deficit.

"These funds obviously will help us to continue to improve our high schools at a concrete level," Ward said. "It will make a real difference in instruction and academics, and teachers providing better quality instruction to students in classrooms."

The 47,000-student Oakland Unified acquired a $100-million loan bailout from the state last year. The district has laid off 85 people, including members of the clerical and administrative staff, and eliminated 339 of its 2,807 teaching positions. It plans to close five schools.

Earlier this month, Oakland voters passed a parcel tax to help pull the district out of debt and give teachers a raise.

But the district's seven high schools are still struggling to reduce high dropout rates and improve low test scores. Four of its high schools received a ranking of 1 -- the lowest ranking on a scale of 10 -- on last year's state academic performance index. The index is based on test scores.

"We are trying to invest in areas of high need that have strong leadership and are showing progress," said Tom Vander Ark, executive director of the foundation.

Urban school districts across the country have embraced the small-school concept because research has shown that students on such campuses are more likely to finish high school and attend college. To create smaller schools, officials sometimes divide existing campuses into separate units that share facilities such as gyms and cafeterias.

The Gates foundation has given nearly $700 million to support 1,800 schools nationwide. California schools have received $134 million since 2000. The Los Angeles school district received a $900,000 planning grant for small schools, and the San Diego district received $11 million to reduce campus sizes.

In Oakland, Fremont and Castlemont high schools will be converted into smaller academies this fall. McClymonds High School will be converted in the fall of 2005.

"Obviously, this will not solve the broader district financial issues," said Marie Groark, a spokesman for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. "But our goal is to improve high school graduation rates, that's where we are really focused."

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