Big Bucks for High School Redesign

Gates Foundation offers money and experience to AISD

As of Monday, Austin Independent School District can add a fifth R to its much-touted four R's of high school redesign: Rippin' open a big, fat $1.5 million check from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The grant will fund a year of planning and community engagement on AISD's effort to redesign all 11 of its comprehensive high schools.

"Redesign" doesn't mean installing hip new draperies – the term is education wonk-speak for overhauling the way schools and their attendant bureaucracies are organized, scheduled, and run to better deliver academic rigor, interpersonal relationships, college and career relevance, and test score results. Two other groups – Austin Voices for Education and Youth and Skillpoint Alliance – will also receive grants totaling $200,000 to help the district engage the Austin community in the planning process because, as Superintendent Pat Forgione put it, the whole point of taking a year to plan is to hear from as many voices as possible.

"The plans are not developed. The plans are under development," said Forgione at a packed press conference in the library of Johnston High. The site was chosen because Johnston has already undergone its redesign. The school was trifurcated last spring into three "academies," organized around the themes of math/science, arts/humanities, and that perennial high school favorite, global enterprise. Forgione made it clear that although all AISD schools will get some sort of reworking, they won't necessarily follow Johnston's model. "Not every high school in Austin ISD will transform at this great, radical level, but we all must transform," he said.

The first step toward that transformation involves writing some checks to consultants. Monday night the AISD board of trustees approved a $382,000 contract with the Stanford University School Redesign Network, which will provide a critique of each campus' plans. Stanford will also weigh in on a simultaneous process of redesigning AISD's central office, to ensure that the contours of its bureaucracy jibe with the sleek new shape of its schools – whatever that shape turns out to be.

Forgione mentioned the possibility of entirely new institutions, such as a young women's leadership academy or an international high school (a similar concept already exists at Johnston). However, Kent Ewing, AISD's director of blueprint schools, promised that every redesigned school would fit the needs of its community. "Every high school has its own DNA," Ewing said.

This is an idea supported by the Gates Foundation, which has been doling out redesign funds for five years – long enough to get a sense of what doesn't work. According to Steve Seleznow, director of the Gates Foundation's education program, top-down redesign without community engagement is definitely a "don't." "When the foundation started its work with a major focus on changing high schools, the work initially focused on the best form and structure for a high school," Seleznow said. The past five years, however, have shown that structural change isn't enough on its own. "If you don't have parents who are engaged in that process, it's very difficult to have a smooth and successful change process," he said.

The first major opportunity for public feedback will come in a set of campus-level community forums in January.

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high school redesign, Gates Foundation, Pat Forgione, Kent Ewing, Austin Independent School District, AISD

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