Donors approve a sixth year for Project LIFT’s turnaround quest

Students reported for class in July at Druid Hills Academy, one of four Project LIFT schools trying year-round calendars.
Students reported for class in July at Druid Hills Academy, one of four Project LIFT schools trying year-round calendars.

The corporate philanthropists who pledged almost $50 million for Project LIFT, a five-year school turnaround project, have agreed to extend the effort another year.

The private board that partners with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to run West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools won’t need new money for the sixth year, LIFT leaders said Friday. They said the extension will help the schools keep good faculty and extend the chance to show results.

“We’ve gotten a lot of encouragement to keep on keeping on, and that’s what we intend to do,” said co-chair Anna Spangler Nelson.

Project LIFT – it stands for Leadership and Investment for Transformation – drew national attention when CMS signed a 2012 contract to give the donors a hand in running nine schools with low performance and high levels of student poverty. The goal was to have 90 percent of students at all schools testing on grade level by summer of 2017 and 90 percent of West Charlotte students graduating on time.

Now in its fourth year, the effort has yet to yield big steps toward that goal. At the end of three years, only one of the nine schools had a 2015 pass rate above 50 percent.

Challenges have ranged from recession-driven school mergers and changes in state testing to the realization that high-performing middle school students often shun West Charlotte in favor of magnet schools. And across America, efforts to break the link between poverty and academic failure have proven maddeningly slow and difficult.

Nelson and Denise Watts, the CMS administrator in charge of the LIFT schools, say they and the donors believe a sixth year will give more time to test such efforts as:

▪ Project LIFT Academy, a separate location where high school students who have fallen behind can work at their own pace. That program, credited with helping West Charlotte’s graduation rate rise from 56 percent to 76 percent, is already being replicated for other CMS high schools.

▪ Opportunity Culture, a program that provides big pay raises for effective teachers who take on new positions that let them reach more students and/or coach their colleagues. While effects on students have not yet been documented, Watts said it has helped recruit and keep strong teachers.

▪ Year-round school, being tested at four schools, including two that use private money to add 19 days to the calendar. In the first two years there have been no measurable gains, but because the lowest performing schools were chosen Watts says there’s still hope.

Always a high-profile effort, Project LIFT has come under additional scrutiny as the CMS school board studies changes to its student assignment policy. Some citizens and board members say breaking up racial isolation and concentrations of poverty represents the best hope for real change.

Others say pumping in support, as LIFT does, benefits those students more than moving them to a demographically balanced school.

The board is moving toward new assignment policies that could take effect in 2017-18, potentially throwing Project LIFT another twist.

Adding a year to the Project LIFT contract would require school board approval. Nelson said board members have been on board with talks about the extension. Faculty members are being notified of the plan as the spring hiring season approaches; Watts said the prospect that LIFT could end next year might make recruitment and retention more difficult.

Watts said LIFT, which originally shot for $55 million in pledges, landed around $48 million, though in-kind support such as use of mobile medical vans supplemented that.

Just over $26 million was spent in the first three years, which were expected to cost more than the final years, Watts said. That leaves enough to cover the current school year and two more, she said.

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