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$900,000 Grant Is First Step in Transforming Los Angeles High Schools

Plan to include creation of small high schools aims to improve student achievement, graduation rates and college preparedness

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Liliam Leis-Castillo
Los Angeles Unified School District
Phone: 213.241.7000      

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) today announced a $900,000 planning grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a district-wide strategic plan to reshape existing high schools and create smaller schools that emphasize personalized learning. The new investment, which will be administered by the California Community Foundation, will accelerate the district’s efforts to enhance high school options and raise student achievement and graduation rates.

“Too often now, a student becomes one of hundreds or thousands on campus, teachers are pressed for time to do their jobs and parents feel that their children are not being prepared for post-secondary education,” Superintendent Roy Romer said. “Small learning communities will provide a physical structure that fits our academic strategy to create a rigorous curriculum and a personalized learning experience for all our students.”

In Los Angeles, just 56 percent of high school students graduate, according to a 2002 Manhattan Institute study. The situation is even worse for Hispanic students, with only 48 percent making it to graduation day. Nationally, 70 percent of high school students graduate, and just 32 percent leave high school prepared for college-level work.

LAUSD recently has made advances in improving student achievement in secondary education, and the creation of small schools will build on this success. Small high schools offer increased personalization, provide rigorous coursework, cultivate adult-student relationships, and better prepare students for college and work. Studies show that students in small high schools pass more courses, graduate, and go on to college in greater numbers than those in large schools. These positive outcomes appear to be greatest for low-income and minority students.

“Students in Los Angeles deserve high schools where the curriculum fits their individual needs, where teachers know them by name and where everyone expects them to succeed,” said Tom Vander Ark, executive director of education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Developing a strategic plan to implement this vision demonstrates LAUSD’s commitment to prepare all young people for high school graduation, college and beyond.”

Nearly half of the nation’s 60 largest urban school districts and their communities are engaged in high school reform. This fall, more than 150 new, small high schools that combine challenging classes with supportive adult relationships opened across the nation.

Today’s announcement was made at a Town Hall Los Angeles luncheon panel discussion entitled, “Transforming High Schools: Helping All Students Succeed.” The panel, which was moderated by Tom Vander Ark, featured Superintendent Romer and Robert M. Hertzberg, former speaker of the California State Assembly.

The panel discussion drew on national trends and explored ways for LAUSD to shape a high school system that helps all students graduate from high school prepared for college and work. The district’s goal is to have all of its high schools transformed into small learning communities within three years. Research and discussion of small school models that would best fit LAUSD is currently underway in order to ensure strategic implementation.

“We’re doing our homework to make sure that we look at every possible model that would make sense for this district,” said Liliam Leis-Castillo, executive officer to the superintendent who will head up the small schools initiative for the district. “We’ve been receiving input from our internal stakeholders and will soon begin an intense personal conversation with the members of the board of education, parents, students, teachers, unions, business and community leaders, and elected officials about what they think makes a positive learning environment within the framework of small schools. The Gates grant will greatly enhance our ability to do this.” 
The initiative builds on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s nationwide effort to improve the graduation and college-going rates, particularly among African Americans and Hispanics, by strengthening America’s high schools. To date, the foundation has invested $590 million to support 1,600 schools nationwide.

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