Earlier this month, the Charlotte Observer published a front-page article entitled “Year Round School Isn’t Getting Expected Results.” This headline is based on a small portion of a comprehensive set of analyses conducted by my organization, Research for Action (RFA), which has been studying Project LIFT in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for the past four years.
It is true that we have not documented that the district’s Continuous Learning Calendars have resulted in improvements. But limits on what we can do with data prevent us from knowing why that’s the case. While it’s possible that they are ineffective, it’s equally possible that our research did not capture changes that have occurred. It’s also possible that it’s too early to tell.
It is important to remember that the extended learning calendar affects only four of the nine LIFT schools and is only one piece of LIFT In fact, LIFT is a comprehensive initiative designed to dramatically improve school culture and quality by increasing instructional time in addition to emphasizing talent, technology, and parent/community engagement.
After four years, our research shows that LIFT is starting to get real results. Teachers and principals are reporting healthier school climates, and attendance is up in middle and high schools. We see promising evidence of increased academic achievement across most grade bands, and middle grade students are showing particularly impressive results. Finally, West Charlotte’s high school graduation rate is nearing 90 percent – and has nearly caught up with the rest of the CMS district.
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How should the city of Charlotte interpret these results? To provide some context, I will turn to my hometown of Philadelphia. In 2008, our high school graduation rate was an alarming 58 percent, and our new mayor entered office with a promise to fix the problem. Yet despite an eight-year, coordinated city-wide effort, Philadelphia’s graduation rate has not topped 70 percent, and graduation rates in high schools like West Charlotte still hover at 60 percent. In contrast, West Charlotte’s graduation rate has risen by over 30 percent after only four years. This is remarkable progress.
RFA has been studying urban school reform in districts across the country for over two decades. Most of the time, these efforts don’t work. Why? Turning around struggling urban schools is extraordinarily difficult work. It takes sustained resources, strong and committed leadership, and a clear and compelling vision. But even when these critical pieces are in place, it takes time for reforms to take hold. Yet all too often, we are so impatient for results that we give up before districts have had time to fully implement their vision.
To use a baseball metaphor, Project LIFT has not yet hit a grand slam. While we see a range of positive results, they are not consistent across all grades. LIFT student achievement still lags behind the rest of the district, and we have not documented that the extended learning calendar has had an effect. But RFA’s research shows that LIFT has hit a solid double. Given that most times urban school districts strike out, Charlotte should be encouraged by LIFT’s progress.
The Observer’s limericks contest is taking a week off. Send entries to tbatten@charlotteobserver by 9 a.m. March 29.