As Project LIFT hits its halfway point, the effectiveness of the $55 million program to help struggling west Charlotte schools continues to be an open question.
A new report analyzing the second year of the five-year initiative is a grab bag of good and bad. The program has not made much of an impact on test scores and is still struggling to engage parents. Staff and teacher turnover remains a significant problem that could threaten Project LIFT’s success.
But attendance at the nine schools in the program remained high, and suspensions dropped. The report notes that change takes time, and Project LIFT leaders say that the groundwork has been laid for academic gains over the final three years of the experiment.
Research for Action, the Philadelphia-based nonprofit research firm that tracks Project LIFT’s results, says their findings from the 2013-14 school year point to “promising signs” alongside “room for considerable improvement.”
“We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go,” said Denise Watts, zone superintendent for Project LIFT. She said she’s seen a culture shift in the classrooms over the past two years. The schools, she said, are operating more efficiently and teachers are in place who can handle the responsibility that comes with educating children who are often dealing with problems at home.
“In the first few years of anything you’re trying to change, you have to get the structures right and the environment right. The mindset,” Watts said. “None of that is happening overnight. It’s a process.”
Project LIFT targets West Charlotte High and eight of its feeder elementary and middle schools. The program has three specific goals: achieving 90 percent proficiency in math and English, pushing 90 percent of students to hit growth targets in those subjects, and boosting West Charlotte High School’s graduation rate to 90 percent.
Money comes from a consortium of charitable organizations including the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, C.D. Spangler Foundation and The Leon Levine Foundation. The project operates under the umbrella of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Test scores stagnant
The Research for Action report analyzes how test scores from students in Project LIFT schools compare with students with similar demographics elsewhere in the district. Those west Charlotte schools have large populations of minority and low-income students.
That analysis found that Project LIFT students in elementary and middle school scored slightly higher on reading end-of-grade test scores. They were 1.2 times as likely to be proficient on the tests as peers outside the program, though performance still lags the district as a whole.
“These findings are encouraging because reading and literacy gains are historically the most difficult to achieve in school and district turnaround efforts,” the report’s authors wrote.
But there was no effect found on test scores in high school-level English or math or in elementary and middle school science when compared with other CMS schools. Project LIFT students also scored significantly worse on the high school biology end-of-course test than comparable students at other schools. //
Watts said she expects test scores to rise significantly this year, the third year of the project. She said in the first two years, principals were responsible for implementing a number of new initiatives at their schools, which took attention away from directly focusing on test scores.
This year, no new changes are planned.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Watts said.
The report also praises Project LIFT for improving its recruitment of talented teachers and staff, and says the district has gotten positive feedback on moving to a year-round calendar in some of its schools.
Attendance levels of all eight elementary and middle schools in the program exceed 90 percent, and suspensions fell in seven of them.
West Charlotte High’s graduation rate stood at 78 percent last year. That compares with 71 percent in 2013 and 56 percent the year before Project LIFT started.
But the report also points out that new classes of students at West Charlotte High are continuing to fall off the track toward graduation in high rates.
Teacher and principal turnover also remains high. Only four of the nine principals who where there for the start of Project LIFT returned for this school year.
Watts said some teachers and administrators were promoted to jobs at schools outside Project LIFT. But she also said working in the nine schools can take an emotional toll.
“It is beyond the typical job description to work in some of our schools,” Watts said. She said many students are dealing with issues such as homelessness, or have children of their own, or have had family members who were victims of violence.
“You have to deal with that, and then you can get into Algebra I.”
Tangela Williams, principal of Statesville Road Elementary, said her school had significant teacher turnover after the first year of Project LIFT. This year, however, most teachers were retained. Williams said she had focused on bringing in new teachers who knew the job would be more difficult and wouldn’t make excuses for poor student performance based on their backgrounds.
“We’re getting people in the building with the right mindset,” she said.
What comes next?
The $55 million covers the program at the schools through the end of the 2016-17 school year. Watts said she structured the budget such that the amount spent lessens each year to avoid creating a “cliff.”
She said she is already in discussions with the principals to determine how elements of Project LIFT can be continued beyond the five-year time frame. These include things such as summer programs, after-school programs, equipping each student with a tablet and additional professional development for teachers and principals.
Complicating matters is the fact that CMS is without a permanent superintendent after Heath Morrison resigned in early November. The school board has not named an interim superintendent or discussed how the district will search for a new leader.
Watts said that uncertainty hasn’t changed how Project LIFT is operating.
“All we can do is wait and see,” Watts said. “I don’t think we’re letting the foot off the gas on anything.”