As a new superintendent and Charlotte’s philanthropic community contemplate the future of public education, the latest state ratings bring a sobering reminder of how elusive school turnaround can be.
Six years ago corporate and foundation donors pledged some $50 million toward boosting achievement at nine schools in the West Charlotte High feeder zone, in a groundbreaking effort called Project LIFT. Leaders of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools later targeted 14 more high-poverty, low-performing schools as part of its Beacon Initiative.
The schools got extra money to recruit and train the best principals and teachers. The district and its donors have equipped kids with digital technology, hired extra counselors to help them cope with troubled lives and provided summer and after-school programs to keep them learning after bells ring.
The latest round of school grades and test-score data show some gains, including at Nations Ford Elementary School, where Superintendent Clayton Wilcox convened news media Thursday to announce the 2017 letter grades and testing results. He called Nations Ford, which is part of the Beacon program, “one of the shining examples of what CMS can do.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
But just as many of the LIFT and Beacon schools saw setbacks, and none has yet come close to the ultimate goal: Showing that children of poverty can be just as successful as counterparts in the district’s most successful suburban and magnet schools.
Of the 23 schools that are part of Project LIFT or Beacon, only one topped a 50 percent pass rate on state exams last year. And that one, Project LIFT’s Statesville Road Elementary, regressed slightly from the previous year.
Four of the schools rated an F, and Bruns slipped backward to become the lowest-scoring school in CMS. Bruns and Byers School, both part of Project LIFT, are among the state’s lowest performers, on a list of 48 statewide being scrutinized for possible takeover by a charter school operator.
The number of CMS schools rated low-performing on the state ratings released Thursday rose to 40, up from 25 the year before. That includes 13 schools that are part of Project LIFT or Beacon.
Of course, there’s much that isn’t measured by state data: The work and passion that faculty pour into the most troubled schools. The challenges in homes and neighborhoods, and the ways families, school staff and private agencies work together to counteract them. Changes in school climate that set the stage for learning. Student skills, creativity and inspiration that aren’t measured on multiple-choice exams.
But numbers matter when you’re trying to raise money or rally community support. Project LIFT is winding down, with the money stretched to cover a sixth year of what had initially been a five-year project. Philanthropic leaders are trying to figure out how to keep donor support for CMS alive, while Wilcox and the school board hope the November school bond referendum signals a vote of confidence in the district.
Previous superintendents have launched signature turnaround programs with catchy names and bold promises. Wilcox, who led three districts before coming to CMS, likes to say there are “no silver bullets, only silver BBs.”
On Thursday, he talked about scrutinizing each school to make sure the right people are in the right jobs, building better connections between schools and families, and making sure challenges at home don’t become an excuse for failure.
“I hope that what I can bring to LIFT, to Beacon and some of our restart schools is a culture that invites parents in to be engaged in the education of their children. ... Every child should have an advocate for them in the school,” Wilcox said. “And then I will say something I’ve said to our administrative staff: We’ve got to make sure that we’re not loving kids to death, that what we’re doing is holding them accountable for academic achievement.”
A new student assignment plan, approved in May and taking effect next August, will bring change to most of the Beacon and LIFT schools, though it’s far from clear what the impact will be. The board approved boundary changes that will shift the population at 15 of the 23 schools – and another school, Oakdale Elementary, became part of the Project LIFT zone this year because a high school boundary change made it part of West Charlotte’s feeder pattern.
Three K-8 schools – Bruns, Reid Park and Westerly Hills – will become elementary schools in 2018-19. District leaders hope the change will provide more opportunities for the middle school students, though some in the community raised concerns that the older students are simply being moved to other high-poverty settings, including a revived Wilson Middle School slated to open next year.
Throughout two years of student assignment talks, board members and district administrators agreed that schools with extreme concentrations of disadvantaged students face hurdles in recruiting and keeping strong teachers, offering advanced classes for top students and preparing students for life in a diverse world. The main strategy CMS adopted to break up such concentrations is family choice.
In some cases, that means offering magnet programs to attract motivated students and families to struggling schools. Five of the LIFT and Beacon schools – Bruns, Byers, Eastway and Whitewater middle schools and Harding High – will get new magnet programs next year that are designed not only to entice students but to bring new academic offerings, such as computer coding and health sciences.
But the flip side is that families often use magnets to escape low-performing neighborhood schools, which has added to the challenge at many LIFT and Beacon schools.
Last year CMS added opt-out priorities for students who want to leave schools that have been labeled low performing for three years in a row. Those students can request transfers to higher-performing neighborhood schools, as well as magnets. Only six schools qualified for that escape clause based on 2016 results. Now 16 schools do, including eight Beacon or LIFT schools.
Beacon and LIFT schools
State letter grades for all Beacon and Project LIFT schools.
C grades: Albemarle Road Elementary (Beacon), Garinger High (Beacon), Harding High (Beacon), Nations Ford Elementary (Beacon), Statesville Road Elementary (LIFT), Vance High (Beacon), West Charlotte High (LIFT).
D grades: Allenbrook Elementary (LIFT), Ashley Park PreK-8 School (LIFT), Briarwood Elementary (Beacon), Druid Hills Academy (LIFT), James Martin Middle (Beacon), Martin Luther King Middle (Beacon), Ranson Middle (LIFT), Reid Park Academy (Beacon), Sterling Elementary (Beacon), Westerly Hills Academy (Beacon), Whitewater Middle (Beacon), Winterfield Elementary (Beacon).
F grades: Bruns Academy (LIFT), Byers School (LIFT), Eastway Middle (Beacon), Thomasboro Academy (LIFT).
2017 low-performing schools
CMS schools rated low performing for the current year. LIFT and Beacon schools are in bold.
Albemarle Road Middle, Allenbrook Elementary, Ashley Park PreK-8 School, Berryhill School, Briarwood Elementary, Bruns Academy, Byers School, Cochrane Collegiate Academy, Davis Military/Leadership Academy, Druid Hills Academy, Eastway Middle, Gunn Elementary, Hidden Valley Elementary, Highland Renaissance Academy, Hornets Nest Elementary, James Martin Middle, Kennedy Middle, Martin Luther King Middle, McClintock Middle, Mountain Island Lake Academy, Newell Elementary, Northeast Middle, Northridge Middle, Oakdale Elementary, Olympic TEAM, Performance Learning Center, Piney Grove Elementary, Quail Hollow Middle, Rama Road Elementary, Ranson Middle, Reid Park Academy, Sedgefield Elementary, Sedgefield Middle, Starmount Elementary, Sterling Elementary, Thomasboro Academy, Tuckaseegee Elementary, West Mecklenburg High, Winding Springs Elementary, Winterfield Elementary.
Recurring low-performing schools
CMS schools that have rated low performing two of the three most recent years. LIFT and Beacon schools are in bold.
Albemarle Road Middle, Allenbrook Elementary, Ashley Park PreK-8 School, Briarwood Elementary, Bruns Academy, Byers School, Cochrane Collegiate Academy, Davis Military/Leadership Academy, Druid Hills Academy, Eastway Middle, Greenway Park Elementary, Harding High, Hidden Valley Elementary, Highland Renaissance Academy, James Martin Middle, Kennedy Middle, Martin Luther King Middle, McClintock Middle, Newell Elementary, Northeast Middle, Northridge Middle, Oakdale Elementary, Quail Hollow Middle, Reid Park Academy, Sedgefield Elementary, Sedgefield Middle, Starmount Elementary, Sterling Elementary, Tuckaseegee Elementary, West Mecklenburg High.