PROVIDENCE, R.I. -The Providence School District, Coventry School District and The Big Picture Company will receive grants totaling $20 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support the creation of smaller, personalized learning environments that help all students achieve. The three grants will be the first in a series of education grants announced by the Foundation this week.
The grants will be announced today at the Charles N. Fortes Magnet Academy in Providence. Providence Mayor Vincent Cianci, Jr., schools Superintendent Diana Lam, Coventry superintendent John Deasy, The Big Picture Company's co-directors Elliot Washor and Dennis Littky, will join Ronald V. Gallo, President of the Rhode Island Foundation and Tom Vander Ark, Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at the event. The Rhode Island Foundation, the oldest community foundation in America, will administer the grants for both Providence School District and Coventry School District.
Then and now...
- Charles N. Fortes Magnet Academy is still there, admirably serving a high needs population in South Providence, fighting the good fight, quietly and mostly successfully, for the whole decade.
- Mayor Vincent Cianci, Jr. was convicted of racketeering conspiracy and in September 2002 sentenced to five years in federal prison. He's now a successful talk show host and political commentator.
- Diana Lam left Providence to become Joel Klein's first deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, to the eternal chagrin of Robert Pondiscio. She resigned amid a nepotism scandal in March 2004. She is now Head of School at the Conservatory Lab Charter School.
- John Deasy seems poised to become the next superintendent of the second largest school district in the country, Los Angeles Unified. Prior to that, he was deputy director for education at Gates, and superintendent of the Prince George’s County Public Schools and Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.
- Elliot Washor and Dennis Littky are still fighting the good fight as co-directors of Big Picture, still based here in Providence.
- Ronald V. Gallo left the RI Foundation in 2007 and is now President and CEO of the Santa Barbara Foundation.
- Tom Vander Ark left Gates somewhere around 2006 after seven years with the foundation. He is now "a partner in Revolution Learning, a private equity investor concentrating on improving formal and informal learning globally."
- Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation now has an endowment of over $30 billion dollars (up from $21.8 billion in 2000) and ever-growing influence over US schools and education policy, including at the federal level.
Clear goals and improvement plans, as well as a commitment to meet the seven criteria of high-achievement school districts identified by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, made Coventry and Providence strong applicants, noted Vander Ark. Both districts will use their five-year grants to create smaller learning communities that help all students excel. Specifically, funds will help improve leadership and instruction, raise standards, strengthen assessment and accountability, and infuse technology into the classroom. The major part of the grants (80 percent) will go to the districts' schools, allowing each school to build its own improvement plan.
Under current Superintendent Tom Brady, Providence has merged or closed the bulk of its small learning communities. Exactly why is difficult to say, as this strategy was not consistently explained in advance of its implementation, but the majority of the new small high schools outperformed their larger peers. Uniformity is the new watchword, and Providence seems to have forgotten this grant ever happened.
The third grant to be announced will go to The Big Picture Company, a non-profit organization, which designed and created two public schools in Providence - The Metropolitan High School and Highlander K-8 Charter School. The organization will receive $3,450,000 to open 12 similar small schools of fewer than 300 students across the country over the next five years. The new schools would form a network of like-minded schools offering focused learning environments where students and staff are motivated, expectations are high, and achievement levels reflect this dedication. The first school will open in Detroit this September, with schools in Seattle and Massachusetts opening next year.
Big Picture now has an international network of over 40 schools and is the premiere progressive high school "brand." Highlander Charter School is no longer affiliated with Big Picture and was threatened with closure by RI Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist in the spring of 2010 in a particularly shameless bit of political posturing.
Coventry High School will open this fall as an "America's Choice" model high school, where every student is expected to achieve at high levels, the curriculum is focused around core academic standards, all students leave prepared for college and community partnerships provide strong links at all levels.
I found is no sign that there is any remaining connection between America's Choice and Coventry High School. America's Choice was spun off in 2004 by the non-profit National Center on Education and the Economy as a for-profit company. It has recently been acquired by Pearson. Like the Gates Foundation, it is a major supporter of the Common Core Standards Initiative.
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