Harvard comes to Charlotte in hopes of boosting 29 CMS schools. Here’s the key.

Denise Watts (right), who supervises all the principals taking part in the Harvard program, talks with principals Angela Bozeman of Druid Hills Academy, Neodria Brown of Ranson Middle and Matt Bower of Hickory Grove Elementary (l-r).
Denise Watts (right), who supervises all the principals taking part in the Harvard program, talks with principals Angela Bozeman of Druid Hills Academy, Neodria Brown of Ranson Middle and Matt Bower of Hickory Grove Elementary (l-r).

Twenty-nine Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools principals will learn how race, identity, privilege and ability shape their students’ opportunities, the latest in a long-running public-private partnership to boost students’ chances at success in life.

The principals will attend a Harvard University urban educators seminar this summer at no charge to them.

Jay Everette of the Wells Fargo Foundation, which is donating $150,000 for the project, said his group first thought about choosing a handful of school leaders to fly to Massachusetts to attend the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s National Institute for Urban Education Leaders.

But, he said, “if we’re doing it big and we’re trying to drive change, let’s send every single one of you to Harvard,” he told the principals gathered at Druid Hills Academy in north Charlotte on Tuesday.

Actually, he said, “Harvard is coming to you.” The three-day session will take place in Charlotte in July.

A principal who wanted to take the training at Harvard would have to pay $3,300 to $3,750, according to the website, along with any travel expenses.

The notion that principals are key to helping students thrive amidst the challenges of poverty is hardly novel. When the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board met recently to chart its vision for the next few years, recruiting and supporting top principals, especially for high-poverty schools, was at the top of their list.

That same theme was central to Project LIFT, a $50 million partnership between philanthropists and CMS that began as a five-year project in 2012.

Even with additional recruiters and private money for bonuses, leadership at the initial nine schools has seen churn. Only one of the original Project LIFT principals, Jan McIver at Thomasboro Academy, is in the same job seven years later.

At the end of five years results were mixed, with proficiency scores on state exams falling far short of the 90 percent goals announced at the outset. Donors extended the effort through this year, transitioning to a quest to take the elements that worked to a larger group of schools.

The 29 principals participating in the Harvard program are all part of the district’s “Central 1 Learning Community,” overseen by former Project LIFT Superintendent Denise Watts. Those schools have some of the district’s highest poverty levels and, as is often the case across the nation, lowest test scores.

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Oakdale Elementary Principal Mary Weston Ann Doss Helms

Mary Weston, who started as a Project LIFT principal at Bruns Academy and now heads Oakdale Elementary, says she’s well aware of the controversy over whether Project LIFT has been a failure or a promising start. She says test scores and the school letter grades that are based on those scores don’t give a full picture.

“I get the best data points every day,” Weston said after the Harvard announcement. “These little people, these data points, have names.”

Neodria Brown took the leadership of Ranson Middle School this year, coming from South Carolina. While some have said the school brings an especially challenging mix of high poverty and high enrollment — more than 1,100 students — Brown said she was eager to work for a school system she attended and a school that served her two sisters, both college graduates.

“Ranson is my family,” Brown said. “This is my home.”

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Ranson Middle School Principal Neodria Brown Ann Doss Helms

Brown and Weston both say they’re excited about the chance to learn from Harvard professors. The sessions will deal with such issues as how race, identity, privilege and ability shape their students’ opportunities, and how the principals can create a school culture and an academic program that gives them the same chance at success as counterparts in any school. That challenge, known as equity, is something that CMS leaders are working to define and measure.

Equity is a challenge across America, but one with especially high visibility in Charlotte. Creating strong educational opportunities in a district where schools are often sorted by race and socioeconomic status is seen as a key to overcoming Charlotte’s low ranking on chances of breaking out of generational poverty.

“School principals today have an incredible amount of responsibility, serving not only as strong instructional leaders and strong managers, but also as motivators, opportunity builders, and expert strategists,” Deborah Jewell-Sherman, one of the Harvard faculty who will come to Charlotte, said in a statement emailed to the Observer. “They really create the conditions for adults and children in the building to do their best work.”

The Wells Fargo Foundation was one of the original Project LIFT donors, and Everette said the Harvard principal program is a chance to extend support into the future. He also used to opportunity to offer a salute to past leadership, making the gift in honor of C.D. Spangler Jr., a leader in state and local K-12 education and former president of the University of North Carolina, who died in July.

Anna Spangler Nelson, his daughter, is co-chair of Project LIFT. She applauded the principals for their work: “You are our VIPs in our community. You are the leaders in the trenches who are making the difference.”

She also thanked donors like Wells Fargo that are willing to invest in urban education, rather than choosing a simpler project that might put a name on a building.

“This kind of work is not quick. It’s not 100 percent sure,” Nelson said. “It’s a different kind of philanthropic effort.”

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Jay Everette, senior community relations manager for Wells Fargo (left), and Anna Spangler Nelson, co-chair of Project LIFT, tell principals about the opportunity to attend a Harvard urban education program this summer.
Ann Doss Helms has covered education for the Observer since 2002, long enough to watch a generation of kids go from preK to college. She is a repeat winner of the North Carolina Press Association’s education reporting award.