An Open Letter to Bill and Melinda Gates

By Michael Charney

Dear Bill and Melinda Gates:

Thanks for your start-up funding for Success Tech Academy in Cleveland. We could not have gotten off the ground without your funds, which paid for a whole planning year, professional development, collaboration among other small schools, and purchase of technology for all students. We now serve as a public alternative for students to the growing number of for-profit charter high schools in Cleveland.

As a classroom teacher I am able to have a personal conference with every student at least twice a week. There is such a value placed on innovation that as part of my American Government class I had students produce a statewide newspaper about the struggle for adequate school funding, arranged student testimony before the House Education Committee, and brought the whole school to a rally of 3,000 on the state budget. One of my students gave the keynote speech.

Yet, the future of small schools in declining urban areas is in jeopardy. Massive budget cuts threaten the ability of existing small schools to maintain their emphasis on innovative instruction and personalization. Unless state lawmakers provide operating revenue to sustain small schools like Success Tech, the vision that your foundation has worked to promote could wither. The Gates Foundation’s role as the most influential sponsor of small school reform gives you an opportunity to speak to elected officials and policymakers about the need to move beyond small school rhetoric and buzzwords about academic rigor to significantly contribute to the lives of urban youth.

The short story of Success Tech Academy in Cleveland is a good place to start. Only three years old, Success Tech began with a wonderful plan crafted with your support through a planning year. Through the Gates Foundation, over the past four years, you’ve contributed about $200,000 to my school.Cleveland recruited staff from across the country to carry out our vision. Students thrived and were motivated in small classes with personal attention. Attendance at Success Tech is more than 95 percent, compared to around 80 percent for most Cleveland high schools. Student test scores outperform large Cleveland high schools, and it has one of the highest promotion rates for ninth graders in the city. In addition, few students have dropped out of Success Tech despite a less than 50 percent graduation rate in Cleveland schools. The level of student alienation is so low that the boys’ bathroom is as clean at the end of the day as it is when school opens in the morning. I do not know about the girls’ bathroom. But a thoughtful plan led by innovative staff means little over time if those same teachers cannot continue to teach because they are laid off.

Each day I walk by the state-of-the-art TV production studio, which sits vacant, possibly forever. The laid-off TV production teacher substitute teaches in other schools across the district. Ironically, in a school focused on technology with start-up funding by the Gates Foundation, it took six months this year to find the funds to pay for tech support to service the Smart Boards, the large screen TVs, and the school’s computers—about 15 per classroom.

I teach social studies in the same room as the inspiring but laid-off English teacher so beloved by her students. With her own money, this teacher bought personal books for all her students. When it was announced she was being laid off last year, her students passed out flyers in their neighborhood urging attendance at a downtown rally. She finally found a job overseeing students filling out computer-generated worksheets in a for-profit charter school with the professional practices of a McDonald’s.

She yearns to return to motivate her struggling students at Success Tech. But the prospect of her return seems dim. Students murmur how they have been sold out on the promise that they would have the same teachers from their entering freshman year through to their graduation.

That promise was broken as the Cleveland Municipal School District (CMSD) continues to suffer through an unprecedented economic meltdown. Cleveland lost almost $50 million to for-profit charter schools last year and continues to lose $15 million of state-funded private school vouchers. Despite a promise by a special state task force to significantly increase funding to high-poverty districts, the present House budget increased state funding by a mere 2 percent to all districts, which, adjusted for inflation, actually cuts funding for schools.

This year the CMSD eliminated 1,400 positions. This action led to 900 teacher layoffs, which resulted in massive staff instability and demoralization. Success Tech alone lost 40 percent of its teaching staff, including the entire English Department. The school’s art and TV production program was cut, and class sizes ballooned throughout the school.

Our dynamic staff, willing to put in long hours and recruited based on people’s commitment to this small school model of project-based learning, interdisciplinary direction, and personalized attention, today is a shell of its former self. Additional layoffs expected in a few months will remove most of the rest of the younger staff and further erode our founding vision.

Prospective faculty at Success Tech no longer go through an interview or are asked to commit to the school’s curricular vision. Instead we’re assigned staff through the seniority process when openings arise through layoffs. In a school with 85 percent African-American students, no African-American males now teach at Success Tech.

The young and creative Social Studies Department Chair recently announced she is moving to Colorado because the job security is too unpredictable in Cleveland. She leads the Diversity club, Student Council, the Model U.N., and supervises the logistics of state-mandated testing. Of course, the testing will stay, but our students will lose another of the committed teachers recruited when Gates funding offered hope.

You can make a crucial difference for sustaining small schools in urban areas. Mr. Gates, you spoke at the February High School Summit convened by state governors. This conference offered a variety of familiar policy recommendations. Despite playing a prominent role in that summit, Ohio’s Governor Bob Taft proposed a state budget that did nothing to significantly invest in urban small schools. The layoffs next year will create even more instability in small schools like Success Tech. The school district will no longer fund extracurricular activities. Large high schools across the state undergoing small schools transformation will suffer similar operating defeats despite start-up funding from your foundation and Ohio’s KnowledgeWorks Foundation.

Mr. Gates, in your speech to the Governors Summit you declared, ” Everyone who understands the importance of education; everyone who believes in equal opportunity; everyone who has been elected to uphold the obligations of public office should be ashamed that we are breaking our promise of a free education for millions of students.” I could not agree more. But now is the time to insist that governors and other state leaders put their money where their rhetoric is.

Otherwise small schools may suffer the same fate as the National Governors Association Goals 2000 initiative of the first Bush administration. Issued in the late 1980s, Goals 2000 promised that all children would be ready for kindergarten in the year 2000. Much fanfare and some focus on early childhood education followed. But the rhetoric exceeded the financial support.

As leaders of the national small schools initiative, you are in a position to demand that state governments support the money that public-minded foundations have committed to promising reforms. Increased funding per student would provide operating money to nurture the personalized directions of small schools. Successful small schools could inspire further reform throughout the country—spurring recalcitrant districts and educators to more seriously consider the small schools option. The Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that the cost of implementing a quality college-prep curriculum for U.S. students designated “at risk of dropping out of school” would be $2,400 per student or a national total of $14 billion. Securing such funding should become a primary component of your efforts to promote high school reform. Students in urban small schools deserve a chance to succeed.

May I offer some advice? If necessary, threaten to phase out Gates Foundation grants in any state that refuses to provide the necessary resources to sustain the start-up efforts you fund. States must do more in their partnership than simply “raise the bar” and create stiffer graduation requirements. They must prioritize low-income communities and their schools in state budgets. Without this financial commitment from the states, your foundation grants merely contribute to educators’ cynicism about the possibility of fundamental change.

And I urge you to consider using your influence to bargain with unions. Here’s a deal that I believe most unions will accept: States provide small schools sufficient operating funds and the Gates Foundation, through its state intermediaries, continues to support planning, professional development, and early implementation. For their part, teacher unions will agree to staff recruiting and transfer provisions that encourage staff stability in small schools that serve students in impoverished urban areas. Low class size, real teacher leadership at the school site, and increased state funding that means more than short-term grants is enough of a carrot to get teacher unions to reexamine their placement policies. I know. I’ve been a member of my union’s executive board for the past 17 years, and participated in negotiations for four contracts.

It is up to you to use your prestige and financial leverage to bring state operating money to sustain small schools. Without immediate action, small schools could shortly become the latest in the “Been There, Done That” legacy of failed school reform.

You have the resources and ability to turn around the lives of countless young people. In the past, many state lawmakers have responded to thoughtful corporate partnerships. Please use your power to help my students. For them, a successful high school experience could make the difference between a life of personal fulfillment and social contribution or despair and dependency. Make state operating funding for small schools your mission.

Michael Charney 
Social Studies Teacher 
Success Tech Academy 
Cleveland, Ohio

Michael Charney ( has taught in Cleveland schools for 30 years. He edited The Critique, the publication of the Cleveland Teachers Union for 14 years and, with Bob Peterson, edited the book Transforming Teacher Unions: Fighting for Better Schools and Social Justice.