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Stakes high for class of 2017

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  • One teen at a time at Ashley Park
  • Launching the Class of 2017
  • Ursula: High achiever is a test for teachers
  • Malik: Bright and thoughtful, suspended 13 times
  • Elijah: Eager to learn, needs individual help
  • About the series

    First in an occasional series following the efforts of Project LIFT to transform the academic progress of students in the West Charlotte corridor by 2017. The goal is for 90 percent of the West Charlotte class of 2017 to graduate on time. Those students are currently in eighth grade at six schools that feed into West Charlotte.

    Today: Change comes one student at a time. Three eighth-graders at Ashley Park PreK-8 School share their hopes and challenges.

  • Story behind the story

    Ann Helms For more than a decade, I’ve been covering efforts to turn around West Charlotte High and nearby schools. Since Project LIFT was launched in January 2012, I’ve written more than two dozen stories about numbers, money and promises.

    But you have to get into classrooms to tell the full story. I talked with Denise Watts, whom I’d met when she was a principal trying to turn around a westside school. Now superintendent of the Project LIFT Zone, Watts agreed. Ashley Park Principal Tonya Kales, another educator I’ve worked with over the years, agreed to open her eighth grade to regular, unannounced visits. Academic facilitator Meaghan Loftus helped me get to know the students and faculty. To my relief, they weren’t trying to give me a prettied-up media tour. They wanted readers to see the challenges and heartbreaks, as well as the hard-earned victories.

    Since December I’ve visited Ashley Park about once a week, sitting in on classes, faculty meetings and assemblies. I also visited the homes of the three students profiled today. They agreed to the coverage to help people understand the challenges the class of 2017 faces and the human potential that’s at stake.

    Next up: A look at the teachers working with Ashley Park’s eighth grade.

    - Ann Helms

  • About Project LIFT

    • Business and foundation leaders created Project LIFT – for Leadership and Investment For Transformation – to improve outcomes at nine struggling high-poverty schools. Those schools, with about 7,250 total students, are West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools: Ranson Middle, Statesville and Allenbrook elementaries and Ashley Park, Bruns, Byers, Druid Hills and Thomasboro pre-K-8 schools.

    • Donors have pledged $55 million over five years, starting in 2012. Money is being spent for talent (recruiting, training and supporting strong educators), time (including extra school days, summer camps and after-school academic support), technology (for classrooms and families) and family/community support.

    • Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools signed a contract with the private LIFT board to jointly run the nine schools, which now report to a CMS zone superintendent who is paid with private money.

    • Goals for 2017 include 90 percent of West Charlotte students graduating on time, 90 percent of students at all LIFT schools passing state exams and 90 percent showing at least one year’s growth on those tests.

    • Learn more at

  • By the numbers

    Data on the 679 eighth-graders in Project LIFT schools.

    80% are African American.

    9% are Hispanic (because this is an ethnicity, these students are also tallied under race).

    6% are Asian.

    4% are American Indian.

    3% are white.

    12.5% have disabilities.

    9% are homeless.

    8% have limited English


    4% are academically gifted.

  • About Ashley Park

    •  Enrollment: 576 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

    •  Achievement: Last year 50 percent of students passed the state reading exam and 77 percent passed math. For last year’s seventh-graders, the group that will be the class of 2017, pass rates were 49 percent in reading and 69 percent in math.

    •  Discipline: Last year the school logged 78 suspensions per 100 students, more than double the average for CMS middle schools and almost 10 times the elementary school rate.

    •  Demographics: 89 percent black, 4 percent Hispanic, 3 percent white, 3 percent Asian.

    •  Poverty: 87 percent.

An occasional series

When Ashley Park’s eighth-graders came through the doors in August, they were thinking about friends and classes, teachers and clothes.

They didn’t know it, but the hopes of a community and the eyes of national education experts were on them.

They are preparing to join the West Charlotte Lions next year, hoping to graduate with the Pride of 2017.

History predicts that just over half of them will make it.

Local philanthropists have placed a $55 million bet that 90 percent can do it.

Project LIFT, which hopes to transform the lives of youths in the West Charlotte corridor over the next five years, is part of a national movement. The partnership between private donors and public schools has grabbed the attention of policymakers desperate to break the link between race, poverty and academic failure.

It’s a big project. But change comes one teen at a time.

Many have already fallen behind. Some come from fragile families and dangerous neighborhoods. And many of the strongest students are wary of moving up to West Charlotte. The persistent struggles that grabbed the attention of Project LIFT donors have also left their mark among families.

“We’re working really hard to reverse perceptions,” said Denise Watts, who heads the Project LIFT zone, “but you know how hard that is.”

Among the 7,250 students in LIFT schools are 679 in eighth grade. They’re too old for some of the big LIFT changes, such as year-round school and take-home laptops being given to younger students.

But LIFT is making sure they have free summer programs and tutoring. The eighth-graders are learning to set goals and track their own test scores using software bought with private money.

Above all, Project LIFT is focusing its money and energy on trying to give them teachers who know how to work with urban students. That means convincing students they can succeed, having the know-how to make it happen and learning from failure. It means connecting with the teens, inspiring them to pay attention in class and think beyond middle school.

But LIFT is up against deep-rooted challenges. For instance: Despite all the recruiting power the private money brings, teachers say the work is exhausting. For various reasons, none of Ashley Park’s eighth-grade teachers have stayed with the class for the entire school year.

Friday brought a study in the contrasts that help illustrate Ashley Park. As Belk volunteers built planters to beautify the grounds, police rushed in to deal with a student who had brought a gun to school. They say the student is involved in an escalating dispute with classmates.

Families of the westside corridor have seen other reform efforts launch with fanfare, only to fade with little lasting change.

“I just pray that they do what they say they’re going to do,” said Phebe Shirley, the mother of three students at Ashley Park. “Just because of our financial situation doesn’t mean our children don’t deserve a great education.”

Helms: 704-358-5033
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