On a Listening Tour with Melinda Gates

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Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation / David Evans

Melinda French Gates talks to students in a biology class at John Hope College Prep High School, Chicago, Illinois, April 24, 2007

When Melinda Gates listens, she leans in toward the speaker with rapt concentration, her eyes wide open, drinking in information. If she's visiting high school classrooms, as she was last month in Chicago, she doesn't hesitate to crouch down, in her heels and navy blue pantsuit, to get on eye level with a seated student and patiently ask questions. What she listens for are answers to some of the most vexing questions in public education: What does it take to turn a failing, urban high school into one that prepares students for higher education? How do you engage low-income, low-achieving minority students and launch them toward a viable future?

Gates was in town to visit three high schools in the city's South Side, and check up on an investment. Since 2000, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent $66 million to improve Chicago schools, including $21 million last year alone on the city's new High School Transformation program. Two of the three schools on the day's agenda had embarked on this transformation.

Up until recently, Gates, who has three children ages 4 to 11, avoided the public spotlight, but that's begun to change. This year both she and her husband plan to take a visible role in making education a bigger issue in the 2008 election. "Getting it on the Presidential agenda is critical," she explains.

Her focus for Chicago? How to get more public school students — 92% of whom are minority and 86% poor — ready and bound for college. Only half of the city's high school freshmen make it to graduation day four or five years later, though the rate has inched up from 47% in 2001 to 52.7% in 2005, according to city figures. Last year 48% of Chicago's graduating seniors enrolled in college in the fall, according to the National Student Clearing House. Raising graduation rates, reducing the dropout numbers and ensuring college readiness — particularly among poor and minority students — is the chief goal of the Gates Foundation's work in education, and one it is pursuing in about 30 U.S. cities.

But the task is monumental, as Gates could see. She and Allan Golston, the foundation's president of U.S. programs, visited two large public high schools, one with a high graduation rate and the other with a long history as a dropout factory. But even at John Hope College Prep, the stronger of the two, only 27% of students passed state exams last year. Neither school was meeting federal requirements for progress under the No Child Left Behind Act. Arne Duncan, CEO of Chicago public schools, was on hand to show some the district's biggest benefactors his efforts to change that.

At John Hope High, Gates and Golston visited a biology class bursting with fancy new lab kits, books, DVDs and other materials. At Wendell Phillips Academy High School, she saw an English class working its way through pristine copies of To Kill a Mockingbird. The new materials for teaching science, English and math are one element of the transformation plan — one that clearly thrills teachers. Duncan explains that each department gets three choices of curriculum materials rather than having them dictated by the central office. The process helps to energize the teachers and get them working together, say administrators and educators. "I've been science department chair for four years, but this is the first time we are really working as a team," says Sima Fiak of Phillips Academy. As part of the transformation, teachers receive coaching throughout the year on how to use the new materials.

Kids are getting coached as well. At Phillips Academy, Gates talked to students in a program called AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a daily class that teaches them how to how to study, read and think more effectively. Sixty freshman have signed a contract to take the class, which targets middling students, those "on the edge of being successful," explains Euel Bunton, principal of Phillips. While results of the program aren't yet in, attendance of AVID students is 90% — a promising sign in a school where chronic truancy has been a problem.

Gates was full of questions: "Are you thinking about going to college?" she asks nearly every student. "How much homework do you have? Is there anyone at home who helps you?" (The answer to that last one is generally, no.) Gates tells kids that her own mother never went to college and regretted it. "My sister and I were the first women in our family to go to college," she says. "It was difficult for my parents to pay for it." She says she chose Duke University because it had a strong program in computers. "My husband," she reveals, "is finally getting his degree from Harvard after dropping out, which I do not recommend."

Overall, Gates seems impressed with the way Chicago has combined its new curriculum with coaching for teachers and additional support for students. "When you have all those pieces in place, you have a chance to transform a school." But the pace of change is slow. Only 14 of the city's 115 high schools are being transformed, and only one grade at a time. Duncan plans to add another 11 next year, but "we're short of resources," he tells Gates and Golston. "New York City has $4,000 more per student than Chicago and Boston has $2,000 more."

The highlight of the day was not a public high school but a small, bilingual academy called Cristo Rey Jesuit High School. The school, which accepts students of all faiths, has an entirely Hispanic and low-income study body and provides a lot of personalized counseling and small classes. Its hallmark is an unusual work-study program that requires every student to spend an 8-hour day, five times a month, working in a local hospital, law firm or other kind of business. Each employer pays $27,000 a year for a team of four student interns. The money helps defray the cost of educating the students, and the experience prepares them for life.

Cristo Rey students exude confidence. When Gates asked a lunchroom table full of juniors if they planned to go the college, the response was a polite and respectful version of well, duh. For the past four years, every Cristo Rey graduate has been accepted into at least one college. Over 82% are in college or have completed it. The school's winning formula has been replicated in 11 other cities, and seven new Cristo Rey schools are slated to open in September, six of them with support from the Gates Foundation.

"Cristo Rey is magical. What you see is that hope, that optimism," said Gates, who was herself valedictorian of a Catholic high school. "You've got to ask what are the principles that you see there and can they be embodied at a public school?" Bringing that kind of change to an existing public high school, she concedes, is a difficult task.