The metaphors were flying at Tuesday’s joint meeting of the private Project LIFT board and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board: A speeding car with a long way to go. A solid double, but not a grand slam. A partnership that has endured through troubles.
They were all ways to make sense of a grueling march toward academic turnaround at nine west Charlotte schools. Data presented by independent researchers confirmed what all in the room already knew: After four years and $33 million in private money spent, there are points to celebrate and points to lament.
The high points were West Charlotte High’s soaring graduation rate, middle-school reading scores and high school math.
Last year 86 percent of West Charlotte students graduated on time, compared with 56 percent in 2012, before the public-private partnership went into action. While graduation rates have also risen across North Carolina and the nation, Project LIFT can take credit for moving its students beyond expectations, speakers said.
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“This is a remarkable finding,” said Kathleen Shaw, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Research For Action, which studies urban schools. “The school district should be really proud of this, and LIFT should be really proud of this.”
Would I call this a grand slam? No, but it’s a solid double.
Kathleen Shaw of Research For Action
Many schools showed strong growth on test scores, but proficiency rates remain discouragingly low for a project that initially aimed at having 90 percent of students on grade level by the end of this school year.
The tension, as always, is between the need to set what LIFT co-chair Richard “Stick” Williams called audacious goals and the reality of slow progress in high-poverty schools, where most students arrive behind more affluent peers and face challenges that can distract from learning.
“The question I’ve always asked myself is: Do these kids deserve these kind of expectations?” Williams said.
Research For Action compared the 2016 performance of Project LIFT students, who attend West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools, with a group of CMS students identified as having similar challenges. They were matched on race, gender, disability, English proficiency, behavior and academic history.
On sixth- through eighth-grade reading tests, the LIFT students outperformed the comparison group by statistically significant margins for three straight years. But less than 40 percent of students in either group earned grade-level scores last year.
We’re speeding. We’re not creeping along in Charlotte traffic. We have to continue at breakneck speed to get to that proficiency.
Superintendent Ann Clark
West Charlotte’s students surpassed the high school comparison group on Math I exams for the first time last year, but again, both groups remained below 40 percent proficiency.
On elementary reading and math, middle school math and high school English, there was no significant difference between the groups.
“We’re seeing the momentum. It’s not at the pace that some of us may want, but it’s coming,” said CMS board Chair Mary McCray.
Denise Watts, superintendent of the Project LIFT zone, acknowledged that the effort began with aspirations to match the performance of the district’s best schools. On Tuesday, when people talked about closing gaps, they were talking about LIFT students matching or surpassing other highly disadvantaged students in CMS.
“It’s impact,” Watts said. “It’s not success.”
Members of the private donor board and the elected school board said they remain committed to the effort, which has been extended for a sixth year. The group still has about $12 million in donations to spend this year and next. They praised each other – and Project LIFT staff – for sticking with the quest though painful times, including a bleak report in 2015.
Still to come is a January report looking at more data from 2016, including discipline data and analysis of whether the year-round schedule at four schools is paying off.
And more challenges lie ahead, as the school board prepares to hire a new superintendent in the coming weeks, a revised student assignment plan takes effect and the LIFT schools begin planning for life without an influx of donor dollars.