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Project LIFT plans night school for West Charlotte

To help West Charlotte High cope with large numbers of struggling students, Project LIFT plans to add night school and hire a second principal to oversee special programs, the zone superintendent said Tuesday.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has partnered with private donors who have pledged $55 million for a five-year push to improve results at West Charlotte and its eight feeder schools. Those donors have agreed to spend $200,000 this year to pay the second principal and cover other expenses of expanded programs, Zone Superintendent Denise Watts told the school board.

The first year of Project LIFT brought a victory when West Charlotte’s graduation rate went from 56 percent in 2012 to 71 percent in 2013. The gain came at a time when CMS dropped the number of credits required for graduation from 28 to 24. The goal is 90 percent or higher by 2017.

Watts acknowledged the progress, but said “we know we’ve just tackled the low-hanging fruit.” She said West Charlotte’s dynamics are “extremely complex,” with a student body that includes on-track and advanced students, as well as significant number of students who have fallen behind and/or have discipline problems.

She outlined three efforts to deal with the struggling students:

• Project LIFT Academy, which combines computerized lessons and personal instruction for juniors and seniors who are behind on credits. The academy, which began last year, opened Tuesday in a new off-campus location that will serve 60 to 80 students in 2013-14.

• Night school, which will open in January and offer classes from 3-7 p.m. It will target students who are older than their classmates and even farther from graduation, with a mix of credit-recovery programs and GED preparation.

• “The Lions Den,” a new center for students who have earned out-of-school suspensions. It will keep them on campus but away from classmates, Watts said. Students who go home on suspension not only fall behind academically but may be at risk of getting into more trouble, she said.

Watts said West Charlotte Principal John Wall, hired last year from Wake County Schools, is “an exceptional leader” but can’t be expected to handle all of those duties, spread over 12-hour school days. A “co-leader” would be hired for two years while the school stabilizes its student body, Watts said. The goal is to have fewer students who fall behind and need the special support.

The co-principal would be in line to replace Wall, who “doesn’t intend to work 20 more years,” Watt said. The job will be posted soon. The $200,000 budgeted for this year would pay the co-principal and a new security staffer to work at night, plus cover busing costs for night students.

The plans don’t require hiring more teachers, Watts said, because existing teachers can be shifted to new roles.

Watts’ report on the first year of Project LIFT included successes, shortcomings and a lot of gaps. The test scores that are normally used to gauge academic progress have been delayed until November as the state works through a new testing system. Officials have warned that pass rates are expected to plunge.

Tuesday’s board meeting included a demonstration by members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators and the advocacy group Mecklenburg ACTS, who say some of the new exams are so flawed that they waste classroom time and public money. Several speakers urged CMS to resist a planned expansion of the exams known as “measures of student learning,” which were created to rate teacher effectiveness.

Project LIFT spent almost $12.1 million in private money last year, under the budget of $12.9 million, Watts reported. The biggest portion, $4.9 million, went toward recruiting, training and paying faculty.

One sign of success: On the first day of school, five of the nine LIFT schools had all their teacher positions filled, and the other four had only one vacancy each. Across the district, CMS opened with 67 vacancies.

Project LIFT also spent $2.9 million to provide students extra learning time, including after-school, Saturday and summer programs. Officials had hoped to provide free summer programs for 900 students through BELL, or Building Educated Leaders for Life. But only 780 participated, Watts said. One of the biggest challenges was getting rising ninth-graders to take part; only about half of the budgeted 180 spots at West Charlotte were filled.

Helms: 704-358-5033 Twitter: @anndosshelms
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