The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board's unanimous agreement to officially partner with private funders and others in the community on an innovative project to help west side schools is worth cheering. The endorsement at Tuesday's school board meeting should not go unnoticed. This is an important venture.
The initiative, Project LIFT, has the potential to be transformative for the entire system. The tools developed and employed not only could help boost the performance of students who enter school with enormous challenges but ensure all others meet their academic potential too.
A look at what's happening in Boston shows how. Boston launched a similar public-private partnership two years ago. Several major philanthropic organizations gave $27 million to a partnership to accelerate student achievement across the city. The money was given to groups providing services such as early education and after-school programs.
A report in September outlined early signs of progress. Students passing Massachusetts' version of end-of-grade tests rose from 66 percent in 2008-2009 to nearly 77 percent in 2010-2011, surpassing the group's goal of 75 percent. The dropout rate declined to 5.7 percent from 7.3 percent during the same period.
The CMS-Project LIFT (Leadership and Investment For Transformation) partnership differs in several respects from Boston's effort, though the goals and several of the tools are the same.
Project LIFT aims to use proven and innovative strategies to boost achievement. It also has outlined a broad effort to harness parental and community partners to help students succeed. The model, like the one in Boston, will tackle needs spanning preschool through high school, leveraging support care such as dental, vision and mental health services.
Private funders pledged to raise $55 million for Project LIFT. The project has targeted schools on CMS's west side, where many students struggle academically. As part of a five-year partnership agreement, CMS created a new school zone that will include West Charlotte High and the eight middle and elementary schools that send students to the high school.
Denise Watts, a former CMS principal and administrator who joined Project LIFT as its executive director last year, was rehired this week as superintendent for the new zone. Her salary and that of two other administrators will be paid for with the private Project LIFT funds.
That payment arrangement does not mean CMS is turning the schools over to a private entity to run, officials said. They couldn't by state law. Project LIFT administrators will report to CMS.
Still, CMS will need to assess whether or how this model could be used elsewhere if other private groups wanted to do something similar. CMS does have a broad array of private partners or donors who have given time or resources for specific projects, including an East Mecklenburg High School alumnus' $500,000 gift to East Meck to hire and retain good teachers. But this project is different in scope. CMS should be prepared to deal with other offers in this direction.
We also hope CMS and Project LIFT officials have plans in case the project falls short of its funding goal. That doesn't appear likely. It has already raised more than $43 million of its $55 million goal, with $350,000 coming from the west side community. Companies and foundations have given the bulk of the money.
They and the community donors should be applauded for their efforts. Others should donate, too. This venture could eventually, as CMS board member Rhonda Lennon said, "impact every student." It's an exciting prospect.