Project LIFT leaders acknowledged Wednesday that the bold goals they announced four years ago may not be realistic, but they urged people to celebrate smaller gains that make a difference for students in nine west Charlotte schools.
“Everyone thought success would be this easy incline toward the goal,” said Denise Watts, the zone superintendent who supervises West Charlotte High and its feeder schools. “In reality it’s messy. It’s difficult. You have setbacks.”
Project LIFT (for Leadership and Investment for Transformation) debuted in 2012 with roughly $50 million in pledged donations and a five-year plan to help students at high-poverty, low-performing schools log achievements that would rival the best of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. The project would be driven by data and would end with 90 percent of students on grade level and 90 percent graduating on time in 2017.
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Private money has been used to recruit and reward teachers, buy technology for students, extend the school calendar at two schools and provide various kinds of support for students, families and faculty.
Four years in, only the graduation goal seems within reach. West Charlotte, which had an on-time graduation rate of 54 percent in 2012, hit 86 percent in 2016.
But proficiency on state exams remains far lower, with only Statesville Road Elementary topping 50 percent. Statesville Road and West Charlotte earned C’s on state ratings, with the rest graded D or F. Four of the nine are rated low-performing, based on proficiency and growth.
“We are still far below the 90 percent that we want to be,” said Project LIFT Executive Director Chris Triolo.
But the 2016 performance data released last week showed significant progress, Watts and Triolo said at a news conference at Ashley Park PreK-8 School, which went from an F to a D and got off the low-performing list based on strong growth.
Four of the LIFT schools saw their growth ratings rise, while none dropped. Three got higher letter grades, while one went down.
And several schools saw gains on individual subjects, though as Watts noted, scores have fluctuated from year to year.
Many of the Project LIFT trends, from the rising graduation rate to disappointing reading scores, were echoed across CMS and North Carolina. A more detailed analysis that compares LIFT schools with CMS schools facing similar challenges will come in November. That report attempts to identify how much the LIFT efforts contributed to progress.
We will get there. Our kids deserve it.
Project LIFT Zone Superintendent Denise Watts
While Wednesday’s report focused on numbers, administrators and one parent talked about the importance of things that can’t be measured.
West Charlotte Principal Timisha Barnes-Jones says data gains are important because “it gives us more of a platform to dispel the myths that are held in the community about West Charlotte High School.” But she said one of the biggest changes has been the school culture: “It’s a happy place to be.”
Shamaiye Crenshaw, who has a first- and an eighth-grader at Thomasboro Academy, said she heard bad things about westside schools when she moved to Charlotte four years ago. “If I had followed their advice, I would probably be in Union County somewhere,” she said.
Instead, she says she visited the preK-8 school and discovered it’s a good place for her children. This year, she says, she is challenging herself as a parent to get more involved: “That may be the missing piece.”
The Project LIFT board has already extended the effort for a sixth year, without additional money. And some Project LIFT initiatives are already viewed as promising enough to expand. CMS has replicated the Project LIFT Academy, which offers an off-campus location for students at risk of dropping out, and expanded the Opportunity Culture program, which creates big pay hikes for high-performing teachers who coach colleagues and/or teach more students.
Watts said there will be no sweeping changes this year, even at the schools that remain bogged at the bottom of the state’s performance list. Project LIFT will continue efforts to build and support strong faculty, identify each student’s needs and connect with families, she said.
“The momentum is palpable,” Watts said. “The breakthrough that we are building up to is within reach. We will get there. Our kids deserve it.”