As philanthropy takes a growing role in public education, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' partnership with Project LIFT promises to break new ground.
Local proponents say giving donors a role in running nine public schools will create the chemistry to speed the glacial pace of reform. Ideally, the outside money and ideas will spark successes that public officials can spread through a district with more than 140,000 students.
"I want (LIFT) to push our thinking. I don't want us to be coloring within the lines," says Ann Clark, CMS chief academic officer.
National experts in education and philanthropy say they've never seen anything quite like the contract between CMS and the board of Project LIFT, which is trying to raise $55 million for the schools that feed into West Charlotte High. The five-year goal: Boost West Charlotte's graduation rate from 54 percent to at least 90 percent.
"It's all very intriguing, and I think it's fair to say this is unlike anything that's happening in the country," said Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education research and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
He and others have doubts about the arrangement, though for different reasons. Petrilli suspects the politics of a public school district will hobble innovation.
Tom Alsbury, who heads a national research center on public-school governance, instead worries that CMS is advancing a troublesome trend of ceding public control to private sources. The role of the LIFT board is one he more commonly sees when donors launch a charter or private school, he said.
"I've never heard of it in a public school," said Alsbury, a Seattle Pacific University professor who used to work at N.C. State. "I'm somewhat puzzled by it, frankly."
Still working it out
Local leaders acknowledge the arrangement, which created a new administrative zone for the nine west Charlotte schools, is so new that big questions haven't been answered.
How much of the private money will be channeled through CMS' public budget? Officials don't know.
What happens if the private LIFT board and the public school board clash? That remains to be seen.
What happens when the money runs out? Leaders hope the effort will attract ongoing support, but they can't be sure.
So far, they're struggling to line up the initial $55 million, designed to fund efforts from 2012 to 2017. After a strong start - LIFT had $40.5 million in hand when founders went public in January 2011 - fundraising has been slow. The group extended its June 2011 deadline by a year but still has only $45 million in private pledges. Leaders now say they'll bolster that with a $3 million federal grant to West Charlotte High and in-kind donations, such as a Microsoft offer to subsidize computers and Internet access for families.
Even if LIFT hits its mark, the money alone wouldn't distinguish it. Many big cities have multimillion-dollar foundations to improve public schools.
One of the best known is the "Facebook schools" effort in Newark, N.J., launched in 2010 with a $100 million donation from social media guru Mark Zuckerberg. The Foundation for Newark's Future has granted millions to create new schools, recruit teachers and principals, support parent involvement and encourage classroom innovation. But its website makes one thing clear: "The foundation will run no schools or any programs."
In contrast, CMS' new Project LIFT Zone is run by Denise Watts, a CMS employee whose $150,000 salary is paid by LIFT donations. She has responsibility for about 7,000 students, from pre-kindergarten to high school. Watts reports to Clark and the LIFT board, and is supported by other privately paid staff.
The project plans to expand summer and after-school programs, bolster technology in schools and homes, and strengthen families through such efforts as social services and a mobile medical clinic. But the biggest push is to cultivate great faculty, a strategy leaders believe will outlast the five years of funding.
As soon as the new zone opened Feb. 27, Watts made the rounds of schools, offering some teachers bonuses to stay and telling others they'll have to transfer next year.
"It's an intriguing hybrid," says the Fordham Foundation's Petrilli.
Most philanthropists push their reform vision by making grants for specific types of changes (think Broad, Dell and Gates foundations) or by creating charters or private schools (think the Harlem Children's Zone, which got many of Charlotte's movers and shakers interested in teaming up for education).
Petrilli suspects Charlotte's donors may find themselves frustrated by resistance from employees and by the ever-changing politics of public education. CMS is in the midst of a superintendent search, and school board elections come every two years.
Indeed, even as Watts was visiting schools to lay out the LIFT vision, school board members Richard McElrath and Joyce Waddell were making their own tour to raise questions. McElrath said he voted for the contract but still has questions and doubts. The biggest, he said, is that there's no push to change the fact that most students in the LIFT schools are African-Americans from low-income families.
"Do you really want to fund segregated schools in segregated neighborhoods?" McElrath said. "That's what upsets me, that we're settling for what we're settling for."
Private investment in public education has generated a backlash from people, locally and nationally, who say big-money donors are taking over what should be democratic decisions.
Diane Ravitch, an author and former federal education official, is a vocal critic of what she calls "the billionaire boys' club." In an email interview, Ravitch said the CMS/LIFT partnership is a unique twist on that trend, and it raises a host of questions: Do the donors understand education? Will they push failed or unproven reform tactics? Will the project address the roots of poverty? And finally, "how do parents feel about the 1% taking over their children's schools?"
Clark, Watts and LIFT co-chairwoman Anna Nelson of the C.D. Spangler Foundation say the partnership is far from a takeover. Community leaders and CMS officials have been talking for two years about ways to improve the weakest schools, they say. All say the private money is designed to support CMS plans, not to force a new direction.
"This is in my mind a vote of confidence from the business and philanthropic community," Clark said.
Watts says being the supervisor for the nine schools lets her act more quickly and decisively than she could if she were just dispensing grants and advice. Clark says that by working with one of the nation's largest school districts, donors can accomplish more than they could by creating one or two charter schools.
LIFT donors also met with parents, students and neighborhood leaders from the beginning. Watts holds weekly advisory board meetings that are open to anyone. The Feb. 23 meeting at Bruns Academy, which focused on plans for staff, drew 22 people - mostly educators, but also a couple of parents.
Both were troubled about the state of their children's schools, and both said they believe LIFT can help.
Will energy last?
In Charlotte and across the country, ambitious rollouts of reform plans are common, while lasting, significant results are rare.
Local leaders change. So do state and federal mandates. By the time a program has gotten off the ground and had time to test its merits - generally three to five years - public attention often has shifted, and expectations get scaled back.
CMS has seen a series of big reforms come and go: the high school challenge, the Achievement Zone and an array of plans to recruit and reward teachers for working in struggling urban schools.
There have been gains - West Charlotte and other urban high schools are logging better test scores than they were several years ago - but Clark and Watts acknowledge nothing has yet yielded the kind of dramatic, systemic change everyone wants.
Clark says CMS has been learning from past efforts, and LIFT will build on that.
Barb Pellin, a retired CMS administrator, has seen the launch-and-fizzle pattern. She's now part of another CMS/community partnership that's getting less attention, a family-support project centered on Reid Park Academy.
The Reid Park project and LIFT are both promising intensive data tracking to gauge long-term results. Pellin said she hopes that proves true.
"We've always been focused on 'Here's something new and something big!' " she said.
ABOUT PROJECT LIFT
• Stands for Leadership and Investment for Transformation.
• Schools in the LIFT Zone are West Charlotte High, Ranson Middle, Allenbrook and Statesville Road elementaries and Ashley Park, Bruns, Byers, Druid Hills and Thomasboro pre-K-8 schools.
• Plans to launch summer programs for about 2,000 at-risk students this year.
• Details: projectliftcharlotte.org
• Harlem Children's Zone: hcz.org
• Foundation for Newark's Future: foundationfornewarksfuture.org
• D.C. Public Education Fund: dceducationfund.org
• Atlanta Education Fund: atlef.org