Friendships help charter tap into mountain of money

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The $4 million Chicago International received from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation arguably is a lot of cash, but it is only a pile of pennies in comparison to the mountain of money—nearly $2 billion—that the foundation has committed to educational reform since its inception in 1994.

Concerned about national high school graduation rates that hover around 70 percent and drop to 55 percent for African-American and Hispanic students, the foundation has focused a large part of its efforts on secondary schools, including projects involving the replication of successful small school models. New York City, a pioneer in the small-schools movement, has been a major recipient. Just last month, it got $51 million to create 67 more small high schools.

The Gates initiative at Chicago International is the foundation’s first involving a Chicago charter school. It follows a $7.7 million award last April to support the creation of 12 new “small high schools” inside Chicago’s regular public school system.

In some ways, Chicago International seems an odd recipient for the Gates money, as it has relatively little experience with high schoolers. Before Northtown, only one other campus, Longwood, stretched beyond 8th grade. Yet offering a comprehensive curriculum for grades K through 12 “has always been central to its stated mission,” says Elizabeth Delaney, executive director of the Chicago Charter School Foundation, the non-profit foundation that manages Chicago International.

As with other charters, the bulk of Chicago International’s funding comes from the state.

When Chicago International submitted its proposal to Gates, it was building on a couple of personal connections. For one, charter foundation treasurer Craig Henderson plays online bridge at a site frequented by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and once played against him, notes Ben Lindquist, former co-director of the charter foundation. “That served as an impetus for submitting an inquiry,” he says. For another, Charles Venegoni, co-author of the grant, is well acquainted with David Ferrero, the Gates Foundation’s director of evaluation and policy development for education. The two taught together at John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, where Venegoni still works, between 1990 and 1996.

At the Gates Foundation, “we attempt to work with school systems and to work at the margins by supporting new school models,” Ferrero explains. “Chicago International seemed to be successful with elementary and middle schools, and I bought their argument that they needed high schools for their students to feed into. I like Chuck’s model, and I told Chicago International that I thought [his model] had the best of their schools: rigor, ethics, structure and innovation.” Not surprisingly, when Venegoni and Chicago International executives met, they hit it off.