The whole saga at Crenshaw reminds me of the sad story of another creative public high school that bucked the prevailing reform winds of the day: Feinstein High, in Providence, Rhode Island. Feinstein was founded as a Ted Sizer-inspired “Essential School” organized around the principles of civic engagement and volunteer work. Serving just 360 students, Feinstein was highly nontraditional: It stressed long-form writing, not test scores, and there were no sports teams, class periods, or even grades. Every student had every teacher’s cell phone number, as well as a laptop they could carry between home and school. Although test scores were uneven, Feinstein demonstrated consistently impressive graduation and college-going rates compared to other high-poverty high schools in Rhode Island. For awhile, the school was recognized as a rare success story within an otherwise failing district. In 1999, the Gates Foundation gifted Providence $13.5 million to experiment with creating more small neighborhood high schools, using Feinstein as one model.
Over time, however, Gates, disappointed with stagnant test scores and graduation rates at some Foundation-funded small schools, decided to change his focus. In 2005, he stopped funding non-charter small schools and began investing heavily in school choice and standards-and-accountability reforms, such as charter schools and data-driven teacher evaluation. As the largest private foundation in the world, the Gates Foundation’s priorities are powerfully influential over the entire non-profit sector, and certainly help shape federal and state education agendas, too -- in part through the seeding of Foundation alumni, like Deasy, in important policy-making jobs. It didn’t take long for Feinstein to fall out of favor with Rhode Island’s political and philanthropic elite, and in 2010, despite emotional protests from students and teachers, the Providence school district shut Feinstein down.