School started Monday for about 2,500 K-8 students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s four year-round schools. But this school year began far earlier for a lot of adults.
You could say it started in 2010, when philanthropists, educators and business leaders began brainstorming how to create better opportunities for students in high-poverty schools.
It’s been intense for the past five school years, as the $50 million Project LIFT that emerged has experimented with new paths to success, including a year-round calendar at Bruns, Druid Hills, Thomasboro and Walter G. Byers K-8 schools.
And for the past month, Bruns Principal Marc Angerer and his staff have been visiting and calling homes to make sure parents know not to wait until late August, when most North Carolina schools open, to put their kids on the bus. High absence rates in the early weeks have made it harder to produce the test-score gains everyone hoped to see at the year-round schools.
“We didn’t see the gains we wanted to, but we still see positives,” Chris Triolo, executive director of Project LIFT, said Monday.
As Project LIFT (it stands for Leadership and Investment For Transformation) begins its sixth and final year in its current form, private donors and public leaders are sizing up its lessons. What paid off? What fell short? And most important, what’s the best way to use private money and energy to support public education in the years ahead?
The year-round schools are an example of that. For four years Druid Hills and Thomasboro offered 19 more days of class than other CMS schools, with the LIFT donors paying about $2 million a year for the added staff and busing costs. But when researchers found no measurable difference between the test scores at those schools and those at other schools with large populations of disadvantaged students, the group pulled the plug on the extra days.
This year all four schools will have 176 days of class, just like their CMS counterparts, with the early summer start offset by longer breaks in fall and spring. Triolo says the “benchmark” exams given at the start of each school year show that shorter breaks create less slippage of skills, even if the overall proficiency levels remain lower than hoped for.
Private donations and public money continue to pay for extra support to help students build and maintain reading, math and science skills, including before- and after-school programs and special camps during the summer, fall and spring breaks.
For its first five years, Project LIFT worked with nine schools: West Charlotte High and eight others that feed into it. This year it’s adding a 10th: Oakdale Elementary. Triolo said that’s because the recent student assignment changes mean Oakdale students will soon advance to Ranson Middle, a LIFT school, and eventually to West Charlotte.
Triolo says Project LIFT is proud of stabilizing its school leadership and cadre of strong faculty. Angerer, who was principal at Carmel Middle School for nine years, is the only new LIFT principal this year. He stepped in several months ago to prepare for the transition, as former Bruns Principal Mary Weston moves to Oakdale.
The push to prepare Bruns students and families for opening day illustrates one of the major focuses for all LIFT schools this year: Better community engagement. Angerer says his staff started by targeting students who have a record of missing classes, as well as students who would be new to Bruns this year, to make sure someone visited to talk about the July start. Every teacher tried to call the homes of all their students, with extra efforts to track down any that didn’t respond. And on Sunday, Angerer said an open house got a strong turnout despite being doused by a severe summer thunderstorm.
Triolo said this year’s other focus will be on “the art of teaching,” making sure all LIFT teachers are teaching to the required standards and using data to identify areas where students need work.
Official exam results and graduation rates for 2016-17 will be released in September. So far Project LIFT has seen major gains in graduation rates at West Charlotte, while proficiency on state exams has remained well below the 90 percent five-year goal. Triolo said based on preliminary reports he expects to show “pockets of gains” for the fifth year.