Grim data, high hope: CMS leaders urge patience with turnaround quest

Second-grade math teacher Mone Carthen leads students in the hallway of Thomasboro Academy, one of the nine Project LIFT schools.
Second-grade math teacher Mone Carthen leads students in the hallway of Thomasboro Academy, one of the nine Project LIFT schools.

At the end of a report on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ latest efforts to turn around low-performing schools, board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart broached a touchy subject.

“For some of these schools we’ve been trying to turn them around for decades,” she said. “How are we assuring ourselves and our students that are depending on this that it’s going to work?”

The hard truth is that after millions of dollars and Herculean efforts by educators, the district’s turnaround efforts have yielded little hard evidence of success.

Three years into the five-year Project LIFT, which is working with more than $50 million in private donations to boost achievement in the West Charlotte High School zone, only one of the nine schools had more than half its students testing at grade level last year.

Those numbers never came up at last week’s report to the school board. But they loomed in the background as Project LIFT Zone Superintendent Denise Watts asked the board to look beyond test scores and have patience.

“We need to revisit our definition of success,” she said. “Yes, the results are going to come ... but you can’t climb the Dawn Wall in one day.”

The reference was not a casual metaphor. Trying to break the link between poverty and failure can feel like trying to scale the 3,000-foot sheer rock face in Yosemite National Park.

In both cases, defeat is so common that many have called the challenge impossible.

As Ellis-Stewart noted, CMS has launched plenty of turnaround programs. So far, none has lived up to their lofty goals.

Across the country, as in CMS, individual schools have beaten the odds. Groups of schools have shown gains after sustained efforts. But there’s no large-scale model for accomplishing what Project LIFT – like many other ambitious reform efforts – names as its goal: Proving that students in high-poverty urban schools can match the test scores of counterparts who come from more advantaged settings.

“There are not yet any known examples of districts successfully and sustainably turning around an entire feeder pattern of schools or 10+ schools,” said William Robinson, executive director of the University of Virginia Partnership for Leaders in Education. “Sustainable turnaround requires real system change and system change is hard.”

CMS and Project LIFT have had high points. West Charlotte High had an on-time graduation rate of 76 percent last year, up from 56 percent the year before Project LIFT began. That represents hundreds of young adults with better prospects, said board member Rhonda Lennon: “We are changing lives.”

North Carolina has made so many changes to its exams that it’s hard to track year-to-year progress. Over the past decade CMS high schools have made gains when compared with other N.C. districts, but indicators of college readiness remain low at high-poverty schools.

One response to decades of disappointment is to give up – declare that some kids are destined for failure, that some schools can’t be saved.

Another is to seek a new program promising dramatic results.

Watts and CMS board members say there’s a third path: Visit the schools that are being labeled failures, look beyond the numbers and keep trying.

“We’re in the fourth year of LIFT,” board member Eric Davis said Tuesday. “We are just at the cusp of success, and what so often derails our education reform efforts is just when we get to this point we conclude it’s been unsuccessful. We pack our bags and go home.

“And then,” he said, “we start all over again.”

Face to face with poverty

Thomasboro Academy, just off Freedom Drive in west Charlotte, has seen decades of “fixes.”

The school has deep ties to the historically black neighborhood. Some students’ parents attended Thomasboro. There are also newcomers, as Vietnamese refugees have moved into a nearby apartment complex.

Four years ago, CMS added 4-year-olds and adolescents to the elementary school, hoping to give children a boost before they start kindergarten, then offer a smooth transition to middle school. Thomasboro now has about 800 students, from prekindergarten through eighth grade. Virtually all of them come from low-income homes.

Donors provide school supplies and free haircuts. Teachers and other employees take up collections when a family is in crisis.

“We’ve paid for a couple of funerals,” Principal Jan McIver said.

Weekends often find teachers texting each other about a westside crime they’ve seen on the news. If a student’s family member has been arrested or killed, they need to be ready on Monday morning.

In 2012, Project LIFT became the latest program to attempt a Thomasboro turnaround. Private donations go toward helping CMS provide top-notch faculty, give students extra learning time and make sure they have up-to-date technology.

For instance, science teacher Kenyatta Davenport, who has gotten good results on state exams, got extra money to double her class load. Working with an assistant, she now cycles about 175 fourth- and fifth-graders through her science classroom. Project LIFT is also providing her with classroom technology and coaching in how to use it. She beams as she talks about helping her fifth-graders make movies about wind.

In 2013, the LIFT donors provided about $2 million to add 20 days to the school year at Thomasboro and Druid Hills Academy.

And there are grants for special projects. Three years ago Thomasboro got money to take fifth-graders to Washington, D.C. At schools where parents and PTAs can foot the bill, such trips are routine. Here, teachers beam when they talk about their kids doing the same.

More recently the school took students to Romare Bearden Park, just five miles away in uptown Charlotte. The children marveled at the flowers and fountains, the ballpark and skyscrapers.

“Ninety percent of our kids do not leave this neighborhood unless we take them,” McIver said.

This year all Project LIFT elementary schools are using a new curriculum to help the youngest students learn to read.

“My data went off the charts,” first-grade teacher Laura Ashby said.

Seriously? Data on first-graders?

The teachers who are listening laugh at the question. Thomasboro starts tracking data when the 4-year-olds arrive.

Judgment day

Most of that data is used to decide what students need and how to shape lessons. But in May, third- through eighth-graders sit down for four-hour state exams.

The scores are used to grade the school and, based on student progress, rate teachers’ effectiveness.

Last year fewer than 30 percent of Thomasboro students passed reading and math. In science, 58 percent hit the grade-level mark.

When it came to scores considered on track for college – the level that was considered passing when Project LIFT began – Thomasboro’s overall average was 22 percent.

According to the state’s growth formula, Thomasboro students exceeded a year’s progress, but the school still got a D.

“I know that the outsiders want us to do it just like that,” Davenport says, snapping her fingers.

Turnaround projects generally launch with bold projections. Project LIFT was no exception. Watts talked about having 90 percent of students on grade level and a 90 percent graduation rate at West Charlotte by 2017.

When she reported the 2015 scores to the LIFT board this fall, her eyes filled with tears. Members were kind but disappointed. “When you invest that much money,” she said, “you want to see a return on your investment.”

Shortly after that meeting, Watts got a copy of a spreadsheet Lindalyn Kakadelis of the John Locke Foundation sent to the state Board of Education highlighting the low scores at Project LIFT schools.

Kakadelis was on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board 15 years ago. She remembers pushing for change at Thomasboro and other schools at the time.

“We were saying ‘no more excuses,’ ” Kakadelis recalls.

She’s been following Project LIFT with skepticism from the outset. “Everybody’s heart is in the right place,” she said, “but money alone isn’t going to fix these issues.”

Hope and scrutiny

Last week Kakadelis and Davis took a tour of Allenbrook Elementary, another Project LIFT school. They heard the principal talk about the challenges of student poverty and staff turnover.

For Davis, a member of the CMS board and the state Board of Education, it renewed his dedication.

Kakadelis was less certain. She thinks more drastic measures may be needed, whether that means giving public schools more freedom from regulations or giving families more chances to choose charter or private schools.

“I am pulling for them. With all my heart I hope it works,” she said. But she’s going to keep looking at results: “If it can’t happen with Project LIFT, then we need to open it up and say ‘Who can do it?’ ”

Superintendent Ann Clark told the CMS board that progress may be slow, but the district learns from each effort. She traces high school gains back to “the high school challenge,” a county-funded turnaround push from a decade ago.

Project LIFT was built on lessons from earlier projects, she said, and when CMS launched its Beacon Initiative in 2014, LIFT served as a guide. Beacon targets 14 of the district’s consistently low-performing schools, including two that are part of Project LIFT, for additional support tailored to the school’s needs.

An academy for struggling high school students to work toward graduation at their own pace has worked well at West Charlotte and is being replicated for Beacon schools. The Opportunity Culture program, which creates big raises for high-performing teachers who take on extra duties, is being expanded.

But year-round schools remain a question mark, Clark said: “The jury’s still out on our year-round schools, so you haven’t seen an investment yet in year-round schools.”

The University of Virginia’s turnaround program is working with Beacon and LIFT to craft research-based strategies. Robinson, who is in charge of that project for the university, acknowledges that the work is “incredibly hard” and fraught with failure, but insists there’s cause for optimism.

“Charlotte is demonstrating great courage and hope in undertaking intensive efforts to improve the lives of the kids it serves,” he said. “Charlotte has had some success with transforming schools, which is unfortunately better than many districts can say.”

Watts says she won’t stop trying.

After all, earlier this year two climbers reached the top of the Dawn Wall.

Project LIFT numbers

Results from 2015 state exams. “Grade level” is the composite pass rate on state reading, math and science exams (English II, math I and biology in high school). “College ready” is the composite who hit a higher mark that used to be considered passing. “Growth” is calculated based on expected progress for individual students, who can make more than a year’s gains and remain below grade level if they start the year behind.


Grade level

College ready



Allenbrook Elem.



Not met


Ashley Park PreK-8



Not met


Bruns PreK-8



Not met


Byers PreK-8



Not met


Druid Hills PreK-8



Not met


Ranson Middle





Statesville Road Elem.





Thomasboro PreK-8





West Charlotte High





Source: N.C. Department of Public Instruction