Gates Foundation awards $40 million to city schools

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In what officials said would be the largest grant ever made directly to the Pittsburgh Public Schools, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has offered the district $40 million for sweeping initiatives to maximize teacher effectiveness.

The school board will hold a special meeting at 6 p.m. today to vote on accepting the grant, which would help finance an $85 million-plus campaign to improve the way teachers are recruited, inducted, evaluated, recognized and compensated.

The district would be one of the Gates Foundation's four "intensive partnership sites" for teacher-effectiveness initiatives nationwide.

"For us, it's the perfect partnership at the perfect time," school Superintendent Mark Roosevelt said, calling the foundation's support an endorsement of previous improvement efforts and an opportunity to accelerate the district's academic overhaul.

Breaking with traditional methods of compensating teachers and staffing schools, the district's plan would put faculty members on performance pay, give extra pay to those tackling especially important assignments, establish a teachers academy, overhaul the tenure system, broaden recruitment efforts and take steps to improve discipline in schools. Some changes would require collective bargaining.

Studies have shown that effective teachers can help students achieve, even if the kids are poor or face other disadvantages.

The district's plan would seek to ensure that effective, motivated teachers are in every classroom, every day, and to boost not only the district's high school graduation rate but the percentage of district graduates who complete post-secondary education.

"This grant has huge symbolic and real value for Pittsburgh," said Grant Oliphant, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation.

The support of the influential Gates Foundation sends the message that the Pittsburgh school district is "in the midst of serious reform, and this is a place where big things are happening," he said.

The district had asked the Gates Foundation for $50 million, but the amount the foundation decided to give -- $40 million -- was not publicly known until now. The district will have to seek additional funds from public and other private sources to implement all components of the $85 million-plus plan.

Besides Pittsburgh, the Gates Foundation tomorrow is expected to announce teacher-effectiveness grants and partnerships involving a group of Los Angeles charter schools and school districts in Hillsborough County, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn.

The Hillsborough County school board yesterday voted to accept a $100 million Gates Foundation grant, which will help fund a $200 million teacher-improvement plan, said David Steele, the district's chief information officer.

The Gates Foundation also had signaled a willingness to support a teacher-effectiveness plan in Omaha, Neb., schools. But the district backed out about a week ago, telling the Omaha World-Herald that it couldn't raise enough money on its own to supplement the amount Gates was offering.

The four grants will come from a $500 million pool the Gates Foundation established for a variety of teacher-effectiveness efforts, a new area of focus for the Seattle-based philanthropy, operated by Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda.

Lessons learned in the three cities and in Hillsborough County, Fla., will be disseminated nationwide as the Gates Foundation seeks clues to an elusive question: What makes a good teacher?

The foundation yesterday declined to discuss the amounts to be awarded to the four recipients. Spokesman Chris Williams said Omaha's withdrawal would not mean more money for the others.

Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President John Tarka has described the teacher-effectiveness program as an opportunity to upend stereotypes about urban schools and build on the dedication of the district's teachers.

"The PFT is very proud of the efforts made by our members every day, and this recognition by Gates underscores the reasons why we have that pride," he said.

Mr. Tarka said the grant puts "important, positive pressure" on the union and district to negotiate agreements on performance pay and related issues.

Last spring, the Gates Foundation invited the charter schools and nine school districts to compete for teacher-effectiveness grants. It announced the five finalists in August, then began to negotiate grant agreements. It appears that the foundation reached agreements with all but Omaha.

Pittsburgh officials said previous academic initiatives set the stage for the Gates Foundation's support.

In the past four years, the district has closed low-performing schools, implemented standardized curricula, launched a principal-training program and put principals and other administrators on performance pay. Mr. Roosevelt and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl launched the Pittsburgh Promise, offering scholarships to graduates of city high schools who meet certain academic and enrollment criteria.

To get the Promise off the ground, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center donated $10 million outright and offered a $90 million matching grant. Because that money goes to the Promise, not the school district, the Gates Foundation gift would be the largest ever to the district, officials said.

Because officials recognized that scholarships will be of little use if students can't handle college-level work, some of the school district's improvement efforts -- new curricula and mentoring programs, for example -- have been designed to improve students' college-readiness. Saleem Ghubril, the Promise's executive director, yesterday said the Gates Foundation grant gives a "huge boost, huge shot in the arm," to college-readiness efforts.

In its proposal to the Gates Foundation, the district said it wanted to increase its percentage of highly effective teachers -- those who "produce student gains that are significantly above the state average" -- from the current 28 percent to 41 percent in five years. It said it wanted to increase the high school-graduation rate from 65 percent to 76 percent in five years.


Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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