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At a city school, Stephen Colbert earnestly reports on new grant

The comedian Stephen Colbert took time out from his regular ranting to conduct a polite, earnest interview at a Manhattan high school this morning, in an appearance meant to announce a new “citizen philanthropy” project by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation is giving $4.1 million to a Web site that connects private donors with classroom teachers who need extra supplies, DonorsChoose.org, .

Colbert, who sits on the site’s board, made the announcement in the style of his televised interviews, before an audience of students at Manhattan Bridges High School, but without any of his usual mean comments. (He did draw laughs with an awkward attempt to use Spanish, the native language of many Bridges students, to explain that he was a “perdedor gigante,” or giant loser, when he was in high school.) The panel he interviewed included Vicki Phillips, the head of Gates’ education division; DonorsChoose founder Charles Best; and a Manhattan Bridges English teacher.

The Gates money will be disbursed to teachers who apply for small grants through DonorsChoose’s existing “Double Your Impact” program, which allows foundations and companies to earmark donations for specific kinds of projects. When a DonorsChoose user views projects that fall into that category, they appear as already being 50 percent funded. The Gates Foundation money will go to support as many as 17,000 projects that are identified by DonorsChoose as boosting students’ readiness for college, one of the new goals the foundation adopted after it re-considered its mission last year.

Phillips suggested that SAT prep classes and trips to visit colleges listed by teachers on DonorsChoose would be eligible for Gates “Double Your Impact” funding. Elizabeth Smith, the tenth-grade English teacher on the panel, said DonorsChoose helped her pay for a $200 set of workbooks to help students in a Saturday “College Bound” program learn how to write college application essays. In the future, such a purchase would qualify for Gates funding.

But the topic of college readiness didn’t come up often during the event, even after Phillips asked Colbert to make “college-ready” the word of the day, in a nod to a recurring feature on the comedian’s “Colbert Report” television show. Asked to name the most memorable projects DonorsChoose has helped fund, Best listed a hunting safety classes in Texas and a garden in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park that a teacher maintains to memorialize a student who was killed while walking to school.

When a student asked Colbert what resources would have improved the schools that he attended in South Carolina, the comedian said that art supplies and more books would have made a difference. (The comedian graduated from a private Christian school.) But it’s not yet clear whether requests for those resources could be eligible for the Gates matching funds.

Arts programs “might be a little bit of a stretch,” Best said, adding that if a teacher “clearly explained” how an arts initiative helped prepare students for college, it might be eligible for the matching funds. Then he looked to Phillips on his left and said with a smile, “We’d like it to be eligible.”

Colbert said that his involvement with DonorsChoose began on a tip from Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist. When Colbert announced his presidential candidacy in South Carolina in October 2007, he had his fans donate to DonorsChoose instead of to his “campaign,” which was a comedy stunt. He raised $68,000 for the organization.