Two Charlotte leaders debate: Has Project LIFT been a success or failure?

A teacher and students at Thomasboro Academy, a year-round Project LIFT school, in 2015.
A teacher and students at Thomasboro Academy, a year-round Project LIFT school, in 2015. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown, a Novant Health executive and co-chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force, says that although its too soon to measure overall success, Project LIFT has been successful in important ways:

Some in our community want an answer to the question: “Has Project LIFT been successful?” But this is the wrong question to ask at this time, with it taking 13 years of formal education to know if a child has been educated successfully for college or career readiness.

Even after five years, we’ve realized much of the vision of Project LIFT. Consider the accomplishments of the 2016 graduating class of West Charlotte High School, the first group of students to be a part of LIFT since its inception.

Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown Courtesy of Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown

By the end of year four (June 2016), graduation rates at West Charlotte increased from 51 percent to 86 percent, with the original 90 percent goal in sight. If the average high school dropout costs taxpayers more than $290,000 in lower tax revenues and greater social supports, then the year-over-year graduation rate gains at West Charlotte have saved our community more than $100 million. In each of the past two years, West Charlotte seniors have earned more than $4 million in scholarships, up from $1.8 million in 2015.

To understand the broader benefits, it’s important to recall why LIFT was born. The Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education and superintendent requested support from our community, in partnership with the school district, to target those public schools with the highest poverty levels and the lowest achievement rates.

Thanks to the generosity of many, the initiative was launched with more than $50 million in philanthropic support. While this is indeed a lot of money, it amounts to approximately $1,200 per student per year for six years. The returns on this modest investment per student are very promising.

As a group of nine schools in the Project LIFT feeder zone, 88 percent met or exceeded state growth in proficiency expectations. Signs of progress are evident throughout LIFT schools, even though actual gains in proficiency rates across elementary and middle school grades have been less dramatic than anticipated. For example, in the difficult middle school grades 6-8, exposure to the LIFT program is amplifying reading and math proficiencies meaningfully.

CMS has embraced LIFT programs that work, replicating them in other low-performing schools. One example is the successful Project LIFT Graduation Academy, now placed in five CMS high schools and benefiting schools well beyond West Charlotte.

The recently released Charlotte Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force report highlighted social capital as critical in closing the opportunity gap that exists within populations feeding into high poverty and low performing schools. The Task Force concluded that, “social capital may, indeed, be the ‘secret sauce’ for creating greater access to opportunity for our children and youth. Cultivating relationships and networks as social capital enables people to connect to information, ideas, resources, support, and opportunities.” This is being accomplished each day within Project LIFT schools.

Additionally, Project LIFT has also positively reached families. For the last three years, they have offered free dental clinics and organized efforts to place learning devices and provide broadband access in households. Parent engagement is on the rise, with all LIFT schools now having established parent-teacher organizations.

So the better question to ask is: “Has Project LIFT been successful in making substantial progress toward improving the education – and lives – of students in the initiative’s nine schools?” The answer to this question is, unequivocally, yes!

Former CMS school board chair Arthur Griffin says Project LIFT suffers from the “soft bigotry of low expectations”:

My friends and family who work and volunteer at Project LIFT schools say, “Project LIFT flipped the script. They misrepresented what we would see in five years. We drank the Kool-Aid.”

Dumbing down behavior. Dumbing down dress. Dumbing down academic expectations. These are the new norms at West Charlotte High School.

Arthur Griffin Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Our community needs to blow the whistle on chronic institutional failure at every opportunity – especially in the field of education, when our children’s futures depend so heavily on getting a good education.

Former President George W. Bush acknowledged this problem and warned us about the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

In 2010, the Board of Education voted to create the most economically and racially isolated series of schools since Jim Crow. The black community was outraged. To soften this horrendous injustice, Project LIFT was born. It was hailed across the country as the most advanced public-private partnership in American education. But the partnership was born out of charity, not justice.

Project LIFT speakers made promises. The goals were lofty: 90 percent of students would achieve a solid command of knowledge and skills in math and English; 90 percent would meet annual expectations for academic growth; 90 percent would graduate from West Charlotte High School college and/or career ready within five years.

Next month will end the initial five-year period. And the results to date are not encouraging:

Less than 25 percent of West Charlotte students achieved a solid command of knowledge and skills in Math 1, Biology or English in 2016.

Less than one-third of the West Charlotte High School’s Class of 2016 received a North Carolina high school diploma endorsement indicating college or career readiness. Too few Lions are getting the education they’ll need and deserve.

Last year’s third-graders had four full years of the Project LIFT experience. One LIFT elementary had 46.4 percent of its third-graders reading at the college and career readiness level. All the other LIFT elementary schools had 33 percent or less at this level. In fact, one PreK-8 school had only 9.9 percent of its third-graders reading at this level.

I applaud the professionals in these schools who come to work each and every day to make a positive difference in a child’s life. Unfortunately for many, the leadership and structure hold them back.

Low expectations can take many forms. Project LIFT’s inequality was by design. It was built-in. Project LIFT’s board is not aligned with the CMS Board of Education and its vision and mission. No CMS policymaker sits on the Project LIFT board. Project LIFT started without a seasoned leader experienced with multi-generational poverty. That error was coupled with newly hired principals and high staff turnover.

Recently, on this editorial page, a couple of LIFT’s Philadelphia evaluators said, “Charlotte should be encouraged by LIFT’s progress.” Charlotte can’t afford such moral complacency.

My family and friends continue to work and volunteer at West Charlotte. We give of our treasure, time and talents to help build dreams.

But as a community, we can’t institutionally continue to be dishonest and short-change unwitting students and their families into believing you should be satisfied, or “encouraged,” with the current level of student achievement. Project LIFT’s welcomed charity failed to provide the leadership, coordination, accountability and urgency that were promised and are required.