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Wednesday, September 27, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tech foundation aims to open schools

Seattle Times staff reporter

Trish Millines Dziko left Microsoft in 1996 to start an after-school technology program to nurture the talent of minority students in Seattle.

The Technology Access Foundation, which she co-founded, will enroll about 300 students this year, up from its first class of 32. All 121 students who have completed its four-year teen technology program have gone to college. In the teen program's office, Dziko takes particular pride in the photo of one graduate, now a full-time employee at Microsoft, caught in a moment of wide-mouthed joy as Microsoft's Steve Ballmer offers her an internship.

But Dziko has even bigger dreams. At the foundation's 10-year mark, Dziko and her staff are busy working to establish five new public schools within the next seven years — and the first might be in Seattle.

The idea is to form partnerships with several school districts to open schools in neighborhoods like the ones where the foundation works now — low-income areas, where the majority of students are black, Asian and Latino. The schools would serve sixth through 12th grades, and focus on science, technology, engineering and math.

"We're trying to go to the places where kids are struggling the most," Dziko said. "I want to say, 'You can have success with these kids, and let me show you how.' "

Dziko is a Seattle public-school parent — her children attend T.T. Minor Elementary, a school which she and her life partner, Jill Hull Dziko, chose after an in-depth search of elementary schools. She also recently co-chaired the high-profile committee that recommended strategies for moving Seattle schools forward — academically and financially.

But she said her experiences at the Technology Access Foundation spurred the idea for the new schools. Too many students, she said, have a strong desire to learn but haven't received important core skills in the classroom.

The Technology Access Foundation hopes to raise enough money to create schools that will provide more rigor for students, Dziko said. It wants to pay for a computer for every two students, additional teachers to keep class sizes low and a longer school day. The district partners would provide the building and the teachers and would share the willingness to try something new.

In all, Dziko says the foundation would like to provide $1.5 million to $2 million a year for each of the five schools — or about double most schools' usual per-pupil allocation.

Looking for help

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Dziko is still looking for the money and district partners. But there is some interest.

Seattle Public Schools will study the proposal, Superintendent Raj Manhas said Tuesday. He expects the district to make a decision in the next two to three months.

Dziko and her staff also have talked with the Highline School District, where spokeswoman Catherine Carbone Rogers characterized the talks as "exploratory."

The foundation has received several planning grants, including money from Microsoft and the Paul G. Allen Foundation and $104,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Gates Foundation doesn't comment on grant proposals, spokeswoman Marie Groark said. But she confirmed that the foundation continues to talk with Dziko and her staff about the schools. Dziko also will be talking with a roomful of companies this morning at a forum designed to unveil the plans for the schools and to solicit financial support or help in creating projects for students.

"We want corporations to be part of helping teachers create projects that have real-world significance," Dziko said.

The proposal is, in many ways, similar to the partnership that Seattle Public Schools has with the New School Foundation, which has worked in two Seattle elementary schools — T.T. Minor (where the agreement ended last spring) and the New School at South Shore. This year, the New School Foundation provided about $1.5 million to the New School.

Hoping for change

The academic plan that Dziko envisions, however, has more parallels with a charter high school in San Diego called High Tech High, which focuses on learning through hands-on projects and has a graduation rate of 95 percent.

That's one of the schools that Technology Access Foundation staff visited in researching their proposal.

Laura Kohn, executive director of the New School Foundation, said she applauded the Technology Access Foundation for proposing the new schools, and hopes that the agreement recently signed by the New School Foundation and Seattle Public Schools will pave the way for more public-private partnerships.

Such arrangements, she said, help schools provide high-quality education that's not possible on what she called "inadequate" state and local funding for schools.

The Technology Access Foundation now works to do something about the fact that companies like Microsoft often can't find as many minority job applicants as they want.

It has a four-year teen program where students get technology training, do internships and receive college planning and leadership skills. It also has classes for younger students called TechStart.

The schools, Dziko says, will just be an extension of the foundation's mission and a chance to encourage school districts to try something very different — a curriculum that's much more hands-on, with fewer lectures and more chances to see how lessons relate to the work world. And the schools will keep students in class longer.

"Our kids are behind, but they are going home at 2:15 p.m.," Dziko said. "That's valuable time that we're missing."

The foundation doesn't pretend to have all the answers, and Dziko points out that certified teachers will be teaching the classes.

But they hope to spark positive change.

"We've been here working with kids for 10 years," she said.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

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