Too few students in blue robes were crossing the stage. Too many had white faces. He consulted the program. Only 400-some names. He knew the Federal Way High School class of 2002 started with about 600. That meant roughly 200 missing, many of them minorities.
He tells this story often these days to explain why, as executive director of education giving at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he's still counting the missing. If everybody who's been in a graduation or attended one could imagine a third of the kids not on that stage, half the African-American and Latino students not on that stage, then maybe they'd be as shocked and outraged as he is.
Even though he was superintendent of schools in Federal Way for five years and he's a little embarrassed about this now he hadn't realized how high the dropout rate really was.
"It kind of ruined what otherwise should have been one of the happiest days of my life," he says. "I take that level of failure quite seriously."
From that seat, high school looked like a worthy target.
At the time, private foundations shied away from high schools, in part because people thought they were harder to change than elementary schools or junior highs. "So that's where Tom wanted to go," says former colleague Kenneth Jones, one of Vander Ark's first hires at the foundation. "You give him the biggest challenge, and that's the one he wants to work on."
VANDER ARK, 45, IS IN his sixth year at the Gates Foundation, the world's largest philanthropy with assets of $27 billion. In 2002 alone, it gave $124 million to K-12 education nearly twice the next-largest donation. Vander Ark started with little direction other than an idea that the foundation should help the country live up to its promise of a good, free education for all. Before long, he proposed focusing on high schools.
It was more of an attack than a call for reinforcements. When he traveled the country his first year on the job, he came across those who think that large high schools are like obsolete factories that need replacing. To work better, he became convinced, they need to be smaller no more than 400 students so teachers and students can know each other well. Tougher, too, so every student graduates ready for college. With the clout the Gates money brings, those ideas, while not universally embraced, have gained momentum across the country.
It is, he says, "the most important work in America."
The dropout rate is "wrong in every possible way," he says. "It's morally wrong. It's economically wrong. It's unjust. We know better and we ought to be doing better."
In his travels, he comes across places like The Met, in Rhode Island, which breaks all the rules about high school. It doesn't give grades, doesn't have what you would call classes. Yet nearly all its graduates are accepted to college. Vander Ark checks other kinds of high schools, all kinds, often dragging other people with him. Recently he took Melinda Gates to Washington, D.C., to visit two charter high schools that are getting good results in poor neighborhoods. He knows educating teens is not easy, and he respects how hard most teachers work. But if some schools can succeed, he reasons, others can, too. It gives him hope. It also feeds a sense of urgency an impatience he feels "every day, all the time, constantly, totally."
In person, he exudes a calm confidence, speaking slowly and often pausing before giving an answer. But there's no question he's driven: "He has one speed, and that's warp speed," says Mary Kenfield, a friend and PTA leader who admired how fast he brought change to Federal Way.
Last year, he took 60 trips, folding his 6-foot-2 frame into airline seats at least once a week. He sends e-mails at 4:30 in the morning, at 10 on Saturday night, and five minutes after leaving the office, typing into his BlackBerry as he drives down Interstate 5. There's no time to waste; by his estimate, 3,000 students are dropping out every day.
Still, some things are inviolate: his daily workout, for example. Family dinner (when he's home). Monday-night practice for the Federal Way Chorale.
But because his work goals will take years, if not decades, he finds other outlets for his compulsion to get things done. Over Memorial Day weekend, he single-handedly painted his two-story house, each day starting at 5 a.m. and working past dusk. That's his way of relaxing, says his wife, Karen. Recently, he took a sledgehammer to a bathroom before he really knew how to put it back together. He relishes "the sense of fear and terror just beyond competence." It doesn't come as a surprise to learn he climbed mountains until his knees gave out. With his father, he summited 47 of the 53 peaks in Colorado that are over 14,000 feet.
"That's the good news, right," Sweeney recalls saying. "What's the bad news?
"It doesn't have a chance of working."
"It didn't take me long to think, you know, he's right," Sweeney says. They were crawling carefully when they needed to leap.
AS A YOUNG MAN, Vander Ark was driven by different goals. Over his father's strong objections, he went to the Colorado School of Mines to pursue engineering. His father, a neurosurgeon, wanted his son to go where he and his father had gone Calvin College for a liberal-arts education.
"Our family is all about why we're here on earth, which is to serve our Lord by serving other people," says his father, Gary, who made sure his young son and daughter helped him teach Sunday school in poor neighborhoods, following the service principles of the Christian Reformed Church.
Vander Ark confesses he strayed from that service ethic early in his career, spending 15 years in engineering and business, chasing promotions, the bigger house, the better car, the corner office. He picked up an MBA.
Then, in 1992, things changed. He quit his job at PACE, a big-box retailer where he'd risen quickly through the ranks. He had found himself working for someone he once helped fire. He realized his days were numbered, negotiated his exit, and went home to figure out what to do next.
Business was no longer the only possibility. Because PACE required its executives to do community service, Vander Ark had joined the board of the Colorado Children's Campaign and soon became engrossed in its mission. A young leaders program he was part of in Denver had also brought him face-to-face with realities that made him angry the number of people, especially children, living on the edge.
For a time, he worked on a proposal for a superstore specializing in infant products. If that had gotten off the ground, he jokes, he might be selling diapers today. Instead, he felt drawn to his roots in service, and to education. Why? "I'm not sure I can answer that one," he says. "It's still quite mysterious to me." It felt like a calling.
The invitation to apply for the superintendent's job in Federal Way came out of the blue, while he was working as a consultant in what he calls a "place-holder job." Vander Ark remembers saying no at least five times. He and Karen had just built a house, and she'd just finished making the drapes. They finally decided to take a look, at least, and they liked Federal Way. It felt more like America than their Denver suburb where, Vander Ark says, diversity was a brunette. He still can't quite believe the School Board hired someone who knew so little. He was young, too, just 35. He remembers someone asking him about inclusion. Having no idea this referred to special-education students in regular classrooms, he said something vague about how including people was a good idea.
But that's Vander Ark talking, and he tends to underplay what he's done. It's a part of his personality that keeps his earnest intensity from becoming overbearing. Though he holds the key to billions of dollars, he often introduces people by saying they're smarter than he is.
Marc Frazer of Washington Mutual admires Vander Ark for not putting on airs. Some foundation officers, he says, "forget they're not actually wearing the old ermine and a coronet."
In Federal Way, Vander Ark started work on the first day of a teacher's strike and impressed people with his calm. He trimmed administrative expenses, started the Internet Academy and the Federal Way Public Academy, the closest thing Washington has to a charter school. He embraced education reform's core idea: Set learning standards that all students should reach. Surprised that school districts weren't more intellectually inclined than businesses, he set aside time for the staff to give book reports at their meetings.
He's carried the practice to the foundation, where he often starts talks or meetings with a poem. A favorite is Rainer Maria Rilke's "The Man Watching," which reads, in part: "What we choose to fight is so tiny! What fights us is so great!" But he's not all highbrow. He has spent many an hour talking education and politics while puffing on a good cigar one of Vander Ark's few vices, says friend and King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer.
When the Gates Foundation started looking for someone to direct its education efforts, Vander Ark's name kept coming up. But Patty Stonesifer, the foundation's co-chair and president, kept hunting for someone with more national stature. They didn't stop talking, though, and each time he'd bring a notebook filled with new ideas. He didn't have all the answers neither did anyone else, she says. But he "was open to really listening, learning and partnering with others to find that way."
THREE BRIEF conversations in 2001 got Vander Ark thinking. In short order, a college president, a community-college educator and Utah's governor touted a hybrid of high school and college, where students could earn a high-school diploma and two years of college credit in as little as four years. Vander Ark liked the idea so much so he got on the phone to see if others wanted to start similar schools. He got a few "I'll-have-to-get-back-to-you-laters," but most said yes. Within a few months, the foundation began a $40 million initiative to open 70 such schools across the nation.
Others might and do see this as a risk based more on hope than evidence. But at the Gates Foundation, Vander Ark is encouraged to be bold. His bosses, he says, "are comfortable making very large bets, what other people would call risks. I think we take appropriate risks risks appropriate to the challenges we face."
They also seek big gains. Recently, Vander Ark was not at all sure he wanted to give a grant to a Midwest district that sought to increase the on-time high-school-graduation rate from about 30 percent to the mid-60s. A big gain, but still mediocre. Vander Ark "felt very dissatisfied with that," says Carol Rava Treat, who oversees Gates grants in six states. They gave the grant anyway, but it sparked discussion about how good is good enough. What if other projects supported by the foundation also just moved the graduation rate from bad to mediocre? "Are we OK with that?" Rava Treat muses. "I don't know if we really are."
They also don't intend to create a few good schools and call it a day. If that's all the foundation accomplished, Vander Ark says, it could be rightly criticized for doing little more than creaming the best students from nearby schools. His bosses "want to make sure we're talking about all the consequences," Vander Ark says. "Good and bad. That we're not just taking the easy way out."
When Vander Ark talks about a great school, or pulls out another Rilke poem like "I Believe In All That Has Never Been Spoken," it's easy to believe that, with the foundation's lofty goals and huge pockets, big things can happen. But other major foundations, most recently the Annenberg, have poured millions into education without dramatic results. (Critics also like to point out that, decades ago, the Carnegie Foundation promoted the rise of the very high schools that the Gates group now wants to dismantle.) But failure just isn't something Vander Ark thinks about. "We have to make it work," he says. The economic costs, the civic costs and the moral implications are just too great.
He doesn't, even for a moment, wish he'd taken on a smaller challenge. The more complicated and important the problem, "the more reason we have to figure it out."
It's a challenge, he says in his understated way, "worthy of a career."
Linda Shaw is a Seattle Times staff reporter. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
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