Web Extra: Listen to Renee Montagne's extended interview with Bill Gates.
Bill Gates looks through a microscope with Morris High School student Jason Melendez in the Bronx section of New York, Sept. 17, 2003. To date, Gates' foundation has contributed $590 million to support 1,600 schools nationwide.
Bill Gates announces his foundation will donate $51.2 million to help start 67 small high schools in New York City. The Microsoft founder and chairman says the effort will help poor and minority students prepare for college and for jobs in today's economy. NPR's Renee Montagne reports.
The grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will go to seven non-profit organizations that work with New York City's public school system.
Gates points to America's poor graduation rate — one out of three eighth graders fails to earn a high school diploma — as evidence of the failure of traditional high schools. The problem is especially acute among poor and minority students. He says the answer is not smaller classes, but much smaller schools.
The approach has been shown to reduce violence and to increase achievement, according to Gates.
"The idea is to create an environment where there's a strong relationship between the students and teachers," he says. "A lot of these high schools have a particular theme, focusing on museums, or some bring together people whose English skills are not particularly strong. But it's a school that has a cohesiveness and doesn't have quite the size where kids get lost that are typical of the very, very large high schools in urban districts."
The smaller schools mean teachers and staff get to know their students better, Gates says. "When a kid walks down a hall and encounters an adult, that adult will know their name and understand whether they're supposed to be doing something else then and be able to talk to them about their progress."
A small high school is "the way to take what is really the weak link in the education system — high school — and bring it up to a new level," Gates says.