Remaking High School

By Kathleen Vail

Fifty years ago, the American high school was doing fine. Most students weren't headed for college. If they earned a high school diploma, they could land a well-paying job. If they didn't graduate, they could still find good work.

"But today it's a disaster," says Tom Vander Ark, director of education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. "A third of American students drop out, half of Hispanic and African Americans drop out. That's a civic, social, and economic disaster."

Vander Ark, whose foundation has spent millions to reconfigure comprehensive high schools across the nation, is not alone in his assessment. Educators have spent much of the past two decades focusing on reform at the preschool and elementary school levels and not paying as much attention to high schools. Recent studies, however, have revealed soaring dropout rates, even more appallingly high for minorities. The higher education and business communities are speaking out about the huge numbers of high school graduates not prepared for work or college.

The resulting hue and cry, which has been gaining in intensity, has pushed high school reform to the forefront. In his bid for reelection, President Bush has proposed spending $300 million to bring all incoming high school students up to grade level in reading and math.

While different in philosophy and approach, reform models all seek to change the basic building blocks of high schools: their size and how and what they offer. The Gates Foundation and other private groups, as well as the U.S. Department of Education, are pouring millions of dollars in research and technical assistance into districts willing to change how they run high schools.

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