As their eighth-grade year at Ashley Park drew to a close, about 30 teens gathered in the gym to dance and eat pizza.
Moving up to high school is a big step, but there were no caps and gowns, no formal ceremonies. Principal Tonya Kales wanted to send a message: You’ve got four more years of work before you graduate.
On Aug. 26, these students will start their freshman year. For many students, that’s the year that separates teens who will graduate from those on the dropout track.
Some will go to magnet schools. Most will move up to West Charlotte High, where public educators and private donors have teamed up through Project LIFT to show that these students can succeed.
If the $55 million investment pays off, the Class of 2017 will show that the long-struggling school can produce results – including a 90 percent graduation rate – to rival the best in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
The past year was the first of a five-year effort. Project LIFT leaders are still trying to figure out what works. They’re tinkering with some strategies, such as summer reading programs and teacher recruitment bonuses. One of the most dramatic changes, year-round school, will roll out at four elementary and middle schools in July.
A revised calendar was deemed too complicated for high school. But the Project LIFT team doesn’t want these teens leading an idle summer. West Charlotte is offering summer courses for all students, with the content determined by their skills. Top students will be prepared to plunge into college-level Advanced Placement classes early. Those weak in basic skills will work to make sure they’re not behind in August.
To get into Thursday’s year-end celebration, the Ashley Park students had to turn in their summer school registration forms.
They milled in the dimly lit gym. A few danced. A couple of boys offered mock-solemn handshakes to their teachers. Most clustered along the wall, under a sign proclaiming “Attitude makes a world of difference!”
Then the DJ invited them to the stage to try karaoke. As the teens giggled, Jessica Williams, the Communities in Schools coordinator for Ashley Park, asked him to cue up Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.”
“I believe that children are our future,” Williams sang. “Teach them well and let them lead the way.”
The teens clustered around her, waving their arms. The curtains parted, spilling light onto the stage.
For a few moments they glowed. Then school was over and they dispersed into the rain.
Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter @anndosshelms
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