Stakes high for class of 2017

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When Ashley Park’s eighth-graders came through the doors in August, they were thinking about friends and classes, teachers and clothes.

They didn’t know it, but the hopes of a community and the eyes of national education experts were on them.

They are preparing to join the West Charlotte Lions next year, hoping to graduate with the Pride of 2017.

History predicts that just over half of them will make it.

Local philanthropists have placed a $55 million bet that 90 percent can do it.

Project LIFT, which hopes to transform the lives of youths in the West Charlotte corridor over the next five years, is part of a national movement. The partnership between private donors and public schools has grabbed the attention of policymakers desperate to break the link between race, poverty and academic failure.

It’s a big project. But change comes one teen at a time.

Many have already fallen behind. Some come from fragile families and dangerous neighborhoods. And many of the strongest students are wary of moving up to West Charlotte. The persistent struggles that grabbed the attention of Project LIFT donors have also left their mark among families.

“We’re working really hard to reverse perceptions,” said Denise Watts, who heads the Project LIFT zone, “but you know how hard that is.”

Among the 7,250 students in LIFT schools are 679 in eighth grade. They’re too old for some of the big LIFT changes, such as year-round school and take-home laptops being given to younger students.

But LIFT is making sure they have free summer programs and tutoring. The eighth-graders are learning to set goals and track their own test scores using software bought with private money.

Above all, Project LIFT is focusing its money and energy on trying to give them teachers who know how to work with urban students. That means convincing students they can succeed, having the know-how to make it happen and learning from failure. It means connecting with the teens, inspiring them to pay attention in class and think beyond middle school.

But LIFT is up against deep-rooted challenges. For instance: Despite all the recruiting power the private money brings, teachers say the work is exhausting. For various reasons, none of Ashley Park’s eighth-grade teachers have stayed with the class for the entire school year.

Friday brought a study in the contrasts that help illustrate Ashley Park. As Belk volunteers built planters to beautify the grounds, police rushed in to deal with a student who had brought a gun to school. They say the student is involved in an escalating dispute with classmates.

Families of the westside corridor have seen other reform efforts launch with fanfare, only to fade with little lasting change.

“I just pray that they do what they say they’re going to do,” said Phebe Shirley, the mother of three students at Ashley Park. “Just because of our financial situation doesn’t mean our children don’t deserve a great education.”

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