On Monday, hundreds of educators in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' new Project LIFT Zone will start learning their place in the public-private partnership aimed at transforming nine high-poverty schools.
Some will be offered retention bonuses that could top $10,000 if they'll stay for 2012-2013.
Some will be told they must transfer to other schools.
The rest will face a choice: Sign on to the vision being crafted by private donors and CMS leaders, or transfer out.
The meetings led by Denise Watts, the privately paid zone superintendent over West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools, mark the rollout of the project and its mission: improving children's future by ensuring they have high-performing teachers eager to tackle the challenges of poverty.
At stake are the prospects of 6,900 students, roughly 90 percent of them from low-income homes in west and central Charlotte. Their schools are some of the district's lowest performing, and last year, only 54 percent of West Charlotte students graduated on time.
In five years, LIFT hopes to boost that graduation rate to 90 percent, and have 90 percent of students showing high growth on exams.
Local philanthropists have committed $45 million - the goal is $55 million by June - to a five-year quest designed to break the link between fragile neighborhoods and academic failure.
"If we invest our money in programs, in five years the programs will end," Watts told about two dozen educators and community members last week. "If we invest in iPods, in five years, we'll be on iPod 5. If we cultivate talent in our schools, talent will last more than five years."
Not a purge
The LIFT plan meshes with CMS efforts to recruit and reward top talent districtwide, said Chief Academic Officer Ann Clark.
A preliminary $50 million spending plan for Project LIFT calls for $22.7 million, or 45 percent, to go toward recruitment, rewards and other efforts to get the best possible staff into LIFT schools, from cafeteria workers to principals.
The other big areas are giving students extra learning time through summer and after-school programs ($16.4 million), building community support ($5.6 million) and boosting technology for education (almost $2 million).
Many teachers have been anxious since the school board signed a contract with the Project LIFT board in January, creating a new boss for the nine schools and giving a private philanthropic group a voice in who works there.
Most of the schools have been through several reform efforts that involve replacing staff. One West Charlotte teacher told Watts the most successful teachers are talking about leaving to avoid another season of turmoil.
Watts said that's why she wants to move quickly to replace rumor with clarity. Her first round of meetings will be at Allenbrook Elementary on Monday.
"What has floated out there is that people are going to be fired," she said. People who are "displaced" through the project will still have jobs in CMS, she said. Nor should there be stigma to leaving a LIFT school, by push or by choice, she insisted.
Watts was principal at suburban Mint Hill Middle, then switched to Spaugh Middle, a high-poverty urban school that closed this year. Great teachers in one setting won't necessarily thrive in the other, she said.
"We need teachers who have the persistence to be in a challenging environment and not have the meltdown," she said. "I personally don't believe a teacher should be made to stay in an environment where they can't function."
Several educators at last week's advisory board meeting voiced relief that the uncertainty is ending and eagerness to be part of the push forward.
Haze Moore, a retired CMS administrator who has a granddaughter at Statesville Road Elementary, said the plan is giving the community hope as well.
Moore said his granddaughter has a first-year teacher, hired after the school year started, who has trouble controlling the class. He hopes LIFT can break the cycle that throws unprepared teachers into the toughest settings.
"I'm just so impressed with the possibilities of a plan of this magnitude, to be funded at this magnitude," he said.
Since Watts became LIFT Zone superintendent, principals have been rating their staff on a list of qualities considered essential for high-poverty schools: leadership, teamwork, initiative, ability to overcome obstacles in a challenging environment and a belief that all students can succeed.
They're also looking at job evaluations, test scores and other measures of student success, then sorting their faculty into three groups: those who will be offered bonuses, those who will be told to leave and those who will have a choice.
Watts said she'll meet with each of the top performers "to applaud, celebrate, thank them and say, 'Please stay!' "
Bonuses will depend on the job and subject area, with the highest rewards available to those who taught subjects with state exams last year and got a "high growth" rating for their students' progress.
Watts said she doesn't expect large numbers to be forced out, based on what principals have told her. All principals had the option to make a clean sweep, with everyone re-applying for a job. None took it, she said.
Watts and Clark both said they won't be raiding CMS' other high-poverty schools to fill the gaps at LIFT schools. The focus is on outside recruitment of people with a passion for urban education.
Watts is holding weekly webinars - the first was last week - to pitch the opportunities of Project LIFT. She is hiring a recruiter who plans to post YouTube videos of students talking about why their schools need great teachers.
LIFT will offer recruiting bonuses based on subject area, experience, results and relocation needs. LIFT schools also offer grants for teachers with innovative ideas, career advancement opportunities and the chance to earn extra pay working in summer programs.
But most of all, Watts thinks the kind of educators she wants will be enticed by the energy of LIFT and the community support behind it.
What great teachers really want, she said, is "to look to the left and look to the right and see everybody on fire every day."
MORE ABOUT LIFT
• The name stands for Leadership and Investment for Transformation.
• Schools are West Charlotte High, Ranson Middle, Allenbrook and Statesville Road elementaries and Ashley Park, Byers, Bruns, Druid Hills and Thomasboro pre-K-8 schools.
• Weekly advisory board meetings are open to the public; get the schedule and other information at www.projectliftcharlotte.org .
• Read an outline of the plan and the draft contract with CMS (final version has not yet been signed) in the blogspot.com/2012/01Paper Trail blog