It looked like the end of Project LIFT.
Last week Clayton Wilcox, superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, released his revamped administration plan. Gone was the special zone created for the $50 million public-private partnership that set out to transform West Charlotte High and its feeder schools.
Denise Watts, who has been the face of Project LIFT since it debuted to national acclaim six years ago, would now lead one of six new geographic zones, overseeing an unspecified group of "central" schools.
But Wilcox says he's not doing away with the controversial turnaround project he inherited when he took over the top job last July. Instead, he says he's expanding a successful program and giving Watts a chance to "spread her wings" at more schools that need her help.
"We think LIFT provides a fulcrum for success," Wilcox said Monday.
Project LIFT — it stands for Leadership and Investment For Transformation — drew national attention in 2012 because of the size of the investment and the fact that CMS signed a contract giving the philanthropists a voice in running the targeted schools, which were some of the district's lowest-performing.
Declaring the venture a success or failure is grounds for heated debate. Graduation rates at West Charlotte High have risen sharply, nearing the 90 percent goal. And donors voted to extend the project, initially set to end in 2017, for a sixth year using existing money.
But state test scores and other measures of academic success remain low, with only one Project LIFT school topping a 50-percent pass rate in 2017.
Critics say proclaiming success in the face of such grim results sets low standards for schools that serve mostly black, Hispanic and low-income students. This year's Project LIFT schools have about 6,600 students, and less than 2 percent are white.
"It has not served our people well. I'm just not satisfied with the outcome of LIFT at all," said Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake, a former teacher and school board member who represents the district that includes many of the LIFT schools.
Leake and other members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus, including former school board Chair Arthur Griffin, have used public comment time at recent board meetings to denounce Project LIFT as a failure.
But Wilcox said Monday that despite "boo birds" labeling the project a flop, the quest has met one of its main goals: Using private money to test strategies that can work on a larger scale.
One of the clearest successes, he said, is the Opportunity Culture program that started in LIFT schools and has expanded to others across the district. It allows schools to create higher-paying jobs for teachers who take on responsibility for coaching colleagues and/or teaching larger groups of students.
Even when it's not directly reflected in test scores, Wilcox said, Project LIFT has helped improve school culture and retain good teachers in the kind of schools that are often marked by high turnover.
Project LIFT has also used private donations to figure out what might not work. The donations paid staff to work more days per school year at two schools, but leaders pulled the plug when those schools didn't show clear gains.
Wilcox said he'll continue to work with the private donor board in hopes of persuading corporations and foundations to give more to extend Project LIFT for another two years.
"We're just thrilled that people will continue to support LIFT," Wilcox said. "I think we are so much better off today for having had LIFT."
Wilcox said he has not finalized which schools will report to which zone superintendents in the new structure, but Watts' group will include the LIFT schools and all or most of those labeled Beacon schools, another CMS program to bring improvement to low-scoring schools. He said the expansion of her turf increases the chance that CMS will be able to keep Watts and put her expertise to use.
Project LIFT leaders said the donor board will have a clearer picture of the future after learning more about Wilcox's restructuring and holding their own board meeting in April.
"The Project LIFT board is excited for the future and remains committed to partnering with CMS in supporting our community’s students," the group said in a statement sent Monday evening. "It is our goal to ensure that the investment the philanthropic community has made over the last six years will continue to generate the best long term results for the children who need it most."