Communities in Schools, which provides academic and social support to 6,500 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students, is a centerpiece of dropout prevention efforts for CMS and the philanthropic Project LIFT.
The program has a long track record and is highly regarded by educators locally and nationwide.
But as CMS proposes to double its investment in the nonprofit group, there's one question no one can answer: How well does Communities in Schools do at reducing dropouts from CMS?
CMS is striving to boost its 74 percent on-time graduation rate. But no one can say what the graduation rate is for the at-risk CMS students who have been aided by Communities in Schools.
CMS, which pays for a small share of the group's budget, has never done an analysis. And Communities in Schools leaders say it's difficult for a private group to track students who move in and out of the program while dealing with challenges that range from homelessness to teen pregnancy.
Project LIFT plans to have the first four-year graduation results in 2016, after the privately funded project begins tracking West Charlotte High students who enter ninth grade next year, said Molly Shaw, executive director of CIS of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and Project LIFT Director Denise Watts.
The dearth of data on Communities in Schools extends to the national level, despite the group's claim that it is the "most effective dropout prevention organization in America." The U.S. Education Department's What Works Clearinghouse compiles academic studies and rates the effectiveness of about 20 dropout-prevention programs, but has nothing on Communities in Schools.
After more than 30 years of operation, the national organization has not done the kind of large-scale studies that would support a judgment of its effectiveness, said Mark Dynarski, a former director of the What Works Clearinghouse and a leading dropout prevention researcher. "It's completely fair to be held to account: If you claim that you're the most effective, how did you arrive at that?" he said.
Overall, the research base on most dropout-prevention programs is "woefully inadequate," John Tyler and Magnus Lofstrom wrote in a 2009 article in "The Future of Children," a journal published by Princeton University and The Brookings Institution.
But the elements they identified as contributing to measurable success are centerpieces of the Communities in Schools approach: Case management of individual students, close mentoring and monitoring of those students, family outreach and attention to out-of-school problems.
Marty Duckenfield, public information officer for Clemson University's National Dropout Prevention Center, agrees Communities in Schools is a leader in the field.
"They do a lot of things right, that's for sure," she said.
LIFT, a quest by local philanthropists to raise $55 million to transform West Charlotte and its eight feeder schools, picked Communities in Schools for its first grant late last year: $950,000 to expand the support it offers in the nine target schools.
CMS, which now provides $889,000 of the local Communities in Schools budget of $6.1 million, will ask county commissioners for an additional $1 million in 2012-13 if the school board adopts a proposal presented by interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh and Chief Academic Officer Ann Clark last week. That money would add Communities in Schools staff to 11 schools.
Those staffers work with about 100 students each. Students are selected based on such risk factors as poverty, academic weaknesses, high absences, family crisis or behavior problems. The case managers work to line up the help each student needs, whether that's a mentor or tutor, glasses or dental work, health care or food.
The program starts early - 21 of the current 44 schools are elementary or pre-K-8 schools - because that's when academic failure or success emerges. Last year 93 percent of students in the program were promoted to the next grade.
Watts said that's the kind of result that led the LIFT board to pick Communities in Schools as its first partner for the West Charlotte schools.
But tracking students through several years is difficult, Shaw says, because struggling families tend to move often. She and Watts, both of whom started their jobs last year, agreed to make that a priority for the West Charlotte project.
High school results
The Communities in Schools presentation to the school board noted a 93 percent graduation rate for the 669 CMS seniors who were in the program last year. But that tells little about the dropout rate, because most students who quit high school don't make it to 12th grade.
CMS doesn't report a graduation rate for seniors, but it started 2010-11 with 7,460 12th-graders. A CMS video on graduation rates notes that "over 7,400" graduated, indicating at least 99 percent earned diplomas.
The report to the school board also describes Communities in Schools as a "local affiliate of the most effective dropout prevention organization in the country." That's a label that was widely circulated by the national Communities in Schools office last year, based on a study commissioned by the group.
But the study, which focused largely on internal evaluation of Communities in Schools, did not draw that conclusion. It included data from randomized control studies of a small sampling of Communities in Schools students - 93 from six high schools in Austin, Texas, and 50 from one high school in Wichita, Kansas - along with some other efforts to examine the group's results.
"A few scattered studies is a starting point, but it's certainly not conclusive," said Dynarski, who reviewed the report at the Observer's request.
Dynarski, who is now a consultant, said the "most effective" label seems to be based more on marketing than research.
"What I was able to see in this report is cherry-picking, pulling out the most positive examples of findings from a set of studies," he said.
Dynarski, who is familiar with Communities in Schools nationwide, said it tends to be a cost-effective program for schools because it brings in private money and links students with existing services, rather than creating new ones. The lack of data makes it difficult to judge whether it's the best way to spend dropout-prevention dollars, he said.
"It's more a school-support program," he said.
One local Communities in Schools project that has a measurable graduation rate is the Performance Learning Center. The group partnered with CMS in 2006 to launch the small alternative high school for students who don't do well in larger settings. Last year, the school's 28 graduates logged an 82 percent on-time graduation rate.
In 2008, then-Superintendent Peter Gorman proposed adding a second PLC, but withdrew the plan in the face of a shrinking budget. Hattabaugh's 2012-13 budget would expand the harder-to-measure part of the program: Adding case workers to traditional schools.
Shaw says the ideal study would compare students who get the group's help with a control group facing similar disadvantages. But that would be difficult, she said, because her group looks at risks that aren't part of standard data reporting, such as whether a child is in foster care or has faced a family trauma.
Shaw and Project LIFT are still working on how to tally results at West Charlotte High. Watts says one thing is essential: There will be an independent third-party evaluator to make sure donors get an accurate account of what's working and what's not. That will apply to all groups that get LIFT money.
Watts, who worked with Communities in Schools when she was principal of the now-closed Spaugh Middle School, says LIFT has pushed CIS to make sure its West Charlotte caseload targets the most at-risk students, including those who have been through the criminal system. That may cause this year's numbers to look bad, she said.
"People need to understand we've changed the model," Watts said. "My focus has been making sure we're seeing the right kids."
Founded nationally in the 1970s by Bill Milliken in New York City; now in 25 states.
Started working with CMS in 1985; now working in 44 of CMS' 159 schools.
Current local budget of $6.1 million includes $889,000 from CMS, which pays for the program in 16 of the 44 schools. The rest comes from United Way, corporate and foundation donations and government money that does not go through CMS.
Proposal to seek an additional $1 million in county money would put CIS in nine more schools and expand the program at two existing sites.
CIS of Charlotte-Mecklenburg: www.cischarlotte .org
CIS national: CommunitiesInSchools.org
Get links to the national Communities in Schools report and "The Future of Children" journal article on the difficulty of tracking dropout prevention success at the Your Schools blog.