Education

Despite controversy, donors pledge another $6.5 million for west Charlotte schools

Project LIFT zone superintendent Denise Watts reports on a public-private partnership that began in 2012.
Project LIFT zone superintendent Denise Watts reports on a public-private partnership that began in 2012. Observer file photo

Charlotte-area philanthropists have given Project LIFT a $6.5 million vote of confidence and another year of life, despite controversy over its mixed record in trying to remake west Charlotte schools.

Project LIFT, for Leadership and Investment for Transformation, debuted in 2012 as a groundbreaking public-private partnership. Corporations and foundations pledged roughly $50 million for a five-year quest with bold goals for helping nine high-poverty low-performing schools match the performance of Charlotte's best. In return, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools gave the private board power to help run those schools.

When the five years ran out in 2017, West Charlotte High and its feeder schools remained among the lowest performing in CMS. Some community leaders have urged CMS to declare Project LIFT a failure and move on. Black Political Caucus chairman and former school board chair Arthur Griffin condemned the effort as a project "born out of charity, not justice."

But West Charlotte's graduation rate has soared, from 51 percent before the project began to 88 percent last year. Supporters say other gains, such as improvements in school culture, student health and faculty quality, are real but defy measurement.

Project LIFT survived this school year on money that remained from the first batch of pledges. This week project leaders announced the new donations to provide one more transition year, in which the lessons of LIFT will be compiled to share with decision-makers in CMS and across the country.

"Over the past six years we have learned so much in terms of what has worked, and not worked, in Charlotte's most struggling schools," said Denise Watts, the area superintendent in charge of Project LIFT (it now encompasses 10 schools).

That was always part of the plan. The private donations paid for ongoing research, which shaped decisions about which efforts survived from year to year. When year-round calendars at four schools didn't yield the hoped-for gains, Project LIFT scrapped the part that cost extra money while keeping a schedule with shorter summer breaks but the same number of days.

Meanwhile, Project LIFT schools piloted an approach to giving effective teachers more classroom responsibility with higher pay that has since been expanded across CMS and is being studied as a model for North Carolina.

Donations for the seventh year come from Foundation for the Carolinas, Wells Fargo Foundation, Knight Foundation, Bank of America Charitable Foundation, Duke Energy Foundation, C.D. Spangler Foundation and Belk Foundation. The Gambrell Foundation has also signed on to pay for a yet-undefined new push to support the social and emotional needs of students in Project LIFT schools.

In 2018-19 the private money will continue to cover recruitment and retention bonuses for faculty and support partnerships with groups such as Communities in Schools, Heart Math Tutoring and Read Charlotte.

"We are extremely excited to have the additional year of investment," Watts said. "Kids will get resources and opportunities they might not otherwise be receiving."

Since Project LIFT started CMS has had five superintendents, but leadership of the private board has remained steady.

"Though it was more complicated than we ever could have imagined, our support was and continues to be unwavering," said Co-Chair Richard "Stick" Williams.

Starting in July, Watts' job will be redefined. She'll still oversee the 10 LIFT schools as well as 19 others. She said she'll use what she has learned from LIFT to improve opportunities in those schools as well.

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Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms
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