Melinda Gates' Mission to Improve Education

Fifteen years ago Melinda French got married on a golf course in Hawaii to a brilliant, impatient and soon-to-be richest man in America. That man was Bill Gates who, as the founder of Microsoft, has made a fortune many times over.

Friends of the two joke that Melinda has made her hard-charging husband more patient.

"I think marriage is a lot about respect for one another and what their strengths are," Melinda Gates told Diane Sawyer on "Good Morning America." "And I think the thing I've absolutely learned from Bill is, you know, step out. You know, step out where your strengths are."


Gates stepped up to the role of co-founder and co-chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The couple plans to give away $100 billion over the course of their lives.

The foundation focuses in large part on fighting global health crises such as AIDS and malaria, and fostering economic development in poverty-stricken countries.

But Melinda Gates is especially passionate about improving education here in the United States. The foundation has invested nearly $4 billion in education, with $2 billion going to high schools. It has helped 2,602 struggling schools create new models of teaching and learning to improve performance and graduation rates.

One of those schools is the Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy. The school is filled with academic superstars, but it wasn't always that way.

BETA was once part of the failing John F. Kennedy School, which in 2002 had 5,000 students. That big school was divided into five smaller schools with more intense curriculums.

The kids at BETA have made a big turnaround since then. Principal Rashid Davis said 78 percent of the students came into the school performing below grade level, but the school's graduation rate for the class of 2008 is 90 percent. Ninety percent of the students are also going on to college.

"The great thing is that as you see in a school like BETA, these kids can do the work, and it doesn't matter what Zip code they're from," Gates said. "You put kids in a school with a great curriculum, they'll rise up and they'll do it. They like to be challenged. And I see it over and over again in schools across the U.S."

One of the BETA students, Ezekiel Hernandez, joked, "We are pushed to our limits. I mean pushed. I cannot tell you how hard we are pushed. We are pushed. We are shoved!"

Melinda Gates as Mother, Philanthropist

Gates has devoted much of her time over the years to raising her children, Jennifer, 12, Rory, 9, and Phoebe, 6.

She hopes her philanthropic efforts will teach her kids about fighting passionately for what they believe in.

She said she wants to teach them to "be strong, speak up, really know who you are."

Gates is determined to make sure educators in this country believe that kids in every neighborhood can shine.

"Letting them be a citizen and participate in this ... great country that we have," she said.

"And there are days it feels daunting, absolutely. Particularly when you look at the dropout numbers, and when you look at what's not serving the students in the United States well. But then there are other times, you know, days like these when you're in a small school like this and it's exhilarating because you see the possibility. And it's the possibility that makes us keep working on this."

Click here to find out more about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation education strategy.