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For Ashley Park, others, school year comes to a close

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  • Ashley Park students celebrate start of vacation
  • Ashley Park Class of 2017 series
  • Three students advance

    In early May the Observer profiled three Ashley Park eighth-graders. Here’s what has happened since. Read their stories at www.charlotteobserver.com/classof2017/

    Malik Carter

    When violent disputes spilled into school this spring, Malik’s teachers worried. An intelligent and charismatic 15-year-old, Malik’s academic future was already threatened by his own temper and a neighborhood marked by gangs and crime. The students involved in a stabbing and a gun at school were in Malik’s circle of friends.

    Ashley Park asked Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to send a behavior specialist to work with Malik one-on-one. He wasn’t drawn into the violence and he finished the year with no more suspensions.

    “Lots of hard work, and I finally made it,” Malik said Thursday, beaming.

    He has a summer job at a grocery store and will attend West Charlotte High, where he’s eager to try out for the football team.

    Ursula Robinson

    Ursula, a high-achieving student, was honored for her academic accomplishments at “This Kid Rocks,” a celebration of Project LIFT students sponsored by Communities In Schools.

    She had hoped to get into a magnet school for ninth grade but did not win a seat in the lottery. Her parents, initially wary of West Charlotte’s reputation as a low-performing school, had started warming up to the idea that a new principal and Project LIFT support could make the school a viable option.

    But Ursula remained dismayed. She told her parents that all the honor-roll students were going to Berry or Harding, magnets with admission requirements. So when they were notified in late May that there was an opening in Harding’s International Baccalaureate magnet, Ursula accepted. She will attend a summer program for high-performing students at West Charlotte.

    Elijah Shirley

    Elijah, who works hard but struggles to stay focused and retain what he learns, is moving up, but it’s not clear to which school.

    He’s assigned to West Charlotte. But his parents still hope to get him into a magnet program at Harding or Berry.

    Elijah’s mother, Phebe Shirley, says she’s grateful that Project LIFT is offering summer school at West Charlotte. “For him, the summer can be hard,” she said.

    On Thursday, Elijah put his arm around Nikki Brown, a teacher who has helped him throughout the year. He asked if she’d help him with his work next year.

    Any time, she told him.

    Elijah leaned in, softly repeating a mantra she taught him: “Dropping out is not an option.”

    “Dropping out is not an option,” she agreed.


  • More information

    About the series

    Third 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 finishing eighth grade at six schools that feed into West Charlotte. Stories have focused on those at Ashley Park PreK-8 School.


  • More information

    About Project LIFT

    • Business and foundation leaders created Project LIFT – for Leadership and Investment For Transformation – to improve outcomes at West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools.

    • Donors have pledged $55 million over five years, starting in 2012.

    • Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools signed a contract with the private LIFT board to jointly run the nine schools.

    • Five-year goals 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 www.projectliftcharlotte.org



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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