Arguments have raged for years over whether Charlotte's many well-intentioned charity efforts really increase graduation rates for disadvantaged kids.
Now, United Way of Central Carolinas is out to settle such debates once and for all with an ambitious 10-year project that hopes to prove which youth programs are working best to keep kids focused on school.
It will also show which aren't succeeding - inviting scrutiny and the risk of losing United Way money in years to come, officials said.
That hasn't stopped 15 charities from becoming partners in the project, including the YWCA, the Boys & Girls Club and Charlotte Speech & Hearing Center. Also signing on was Communities In Schools, a well-regarded program that some experts say lacks sufficient data nationally to show whether it reduces the dropout rate.
All 15 have agreed to supply data on the progress made by the 29,000 children in their programs; their progress will then be compared to test groups of kids not assisted by charities.
It's estimated that 84 percent of those children live in households with an annual income of less than $25,000, officials said.
CMS dropout rates
No group is more excited by the possibilities than Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which sees more than 1,400 students drop out annually.
Ann Clark, chief academic officer for CMS, likened United Way's role to that of an "air traffic controller," focusing the community's attention on graduation rates. The district aims to raise that rate to 90 percent by 2014, up from 74 percent.
"It's not just the responsibility of the school system to improve graduation rates, but the shared responsibility of all agencies that serve children and their families," Clark said.
Still, some among the 15 charities have worried that their pre-teen programs will be held accountable for problems occurring in the high school years.
However, Molly Shaw of Communities In Schools downplayed the idea that agencies have something to fear in the resulting data.
"Clearly, it means some of us may be learning things that are unexpected," Shaw said. "But this is about what is best for families and children. If we know that going in, there's no reason to be scared of the outcome."
The project costs $200,000, most of which will pay UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute and the Institute for Social Capital to do data analysis over the next 10 years.
Data to be collected include test scores, attendance, school suspensions and school readiness (starting in kindergarten).
Jeff Michael of the Urban Institute said usable results could start coming the first year. He also added that precautions are being taken to make sure children remain anonymous.
Wells Fargo funds
United Way Executive Director Jane McIntyre said the project has the potential to reshape the county's approach to helping troubled kids. Better still, her agency is getting a chance to prove to donors that their money is well spent, she said.
"The thing funders and donors most want to know is: What are your results?" McIntyre said. "Collecting and analyzing data to answer that question is always expensive and something agencies can't easily afford."
It's something United Way couldn't afford, either.
However, the Wells Fargo Foundation offered the money as part of a challenge to United Way. The foundation asked the agency to create a project that was innovative, efficient and undeniably successful.
Another stipulation was that it focus on one of the three priority areas United Way adopted last year: children and youth; crisis/housing; and health/mental health. Jay Everette of Wells Fargo said the foundation was pleased with United Way's proposal and its potential to be replicated on other issues, including the arts.
"We felt this research project needed to be done," Everette said. "While charitable support is critical in helping those in need, it tends to treat the symptom ... rather than the root cause. ...This allows the community to address the cause behind the symptoms."
United Way spends nearly $5 million a year on programs for at-risk children, making it one of the community's top financial supporters of education initiatives.
It boils down to an investment in the region's economy, McIntyre said.
"These children represent our future... and clearly they need more help than their parents can provide."