WASHINGTON -- Bill Gates' mega-philanthropy, the $22-billion Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is taking on a mega-institution -- America's high schools with multi-thousand student enrollments.
In a series of announcements made from Alaska to Rhode Island, the Gates Foundation last week announced an initial $56 million in grants to start and support model schools that offer small, personalized learning environments.
The timing couldn't be more opportune. The horrific 1999 shooting at Colorado's Columbine High School triggered many second thoughts about America's big, comprehensive high schools.
Critics are saying these schools may succeed at mounting strong sports teams. But bigness makes it all too easy for shyer, overlooked, sometimes very troubled children to retreat into a haze of anonymity.
America is reaping the harvest: serious numbers of dropouts, millions of graduates unprepared for college or career -- at the very time the New Economy demands ever-rising learning skills.
The Gates Foundation commissioned Tom Vander Ark, former school superintendent in Federal Way, Wash., to tour America looking for what's working -- and isn't -- in our schools.
Mr. Vander Ark did find examples of well-run, adaptive schools, settings where virtually all kids learn well. But he also discovered a terribly disturbing fact: There are no U.S. school districts where all kids are learning well.
The major villain, he determined: large comprehensive high schools, institutions which typically "lose" half their kids to dropout or academic failure.
Schools that work, Mr. Vander Ark determined, are designed around healthy relationships, especially between teachers and students. And these schools are small -- no more than 400 students. Result: no anonymity is possible. Instead, there's collaboration and mutual respect.
In that atmosphere, computers and other new technologies can more easily be introduced. Racial and ethnic diversity is less of a problem. And, according to the Gates Foundation, students are more motivated, there are fewer dropouts and more graduates win college acceptances.
Mr. Vander Ark's choice for "the coolest school in America" is the Country School, a publicly supported charter school in rural Henderson, Minn. Amazingly, this school has no courses, no curriculum and no bells. Students devise study projects, which they have to defend before parent-community meetings three times a year.
Rarely does one see as dramatic a challenge to the tired old teaching model of students coming to school, sitting in rows of chairs and watching teachers work (instruct). The new model, instead, involves teachers coaching students to perform -- a fitting model for the Internet age.
The Country School's seven teachers and three aides for the 125 students are members and owners of EdVisions, a worker co-op which runs the school. Members of the community raised funds and then plunged into building the school. Students are responsible for day-to-day cleaning and property maintenance. But they're also responsible for quality projects and meeting Minnesota's statewide education standards.
The Gates Foundation is giving the EdVisions Cooperative $4.4 million to help start 15 similar schools, beginning in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Offering teachers an opportunity to run and organize their own schools, independent of central bureaucracies, is a model about as radical as you can get in the U.S. public school world today.
With another Gates Foundation grant -- this one $8 million -- the University of Minnesota's long-time school reformer, Joe Nathan, will create small, focused schools inside large high schools in St. Paul and Cincinnati. Other academic centers will start similar initiatives in Detroit, Cleveland, Boston, Providence, Kansas City, Seattle and San Francisco.
The idea is to create new schools of 300 to 400 students each inside the existing buildings of big schools. And there are ways to do that, St. Paul School Superintendent Patricia Harvey told reporters last week, "without tearing down buildings and starting over."
Consistently, the Gates Foundation's new grant list suggests a serious, long-term effort to start or support centers to push creation of new schools, use of technology (predictably given the Gates parenthood) and new kinds of relationships between students and adult mentors.
Read the list and you come away convinced this may be the start of America's most serious effort ever, not just to shatter the dominant "bigger is better" mindset that led to our big comprehensive high schools, but to open Americans' minds to very new forms of education for the 21st century.
There may be irony in that idea coming from America's most vast modern-day pool of personally acquired, high-muscle-power wealth. But that doesn't make it any less significant.
Neal Peirce is a syndicated columnist and his e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.