Eric Frazier

The lessons Project LIFT teaches about ‘fixing’ high-poverty schools

In this 2015 photo, teacher Mone Carthen escorts her students at Project LIFT’s Thomasboro Academy.
In this 2015 photo, teacher Mone Carthen escorts her students at Project LIFT’s Thomasboro Academy. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

What should we make of Project LIFT?

The pricey five-year school turnaround project blasted off in 2012 as an earnest effort to show that struggling high-poverty schools can soar.

Four years and $33 million later, what have we learned? That fixing high-poverty schools is really, really hard, judging from Tuesday’s joint meeting between the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board and the Project LIFT board.

The ambitious public-private partnership pumped new teachers, administrators, technology and ideas into West Charlotte High and eight of its feeder campuses. The goal: 90 percent academic proficiency rate, 90 percent academic growth rate, and a 90 percent high school graduation rate.

Research released at the meeting Tuesday showed some real causes for celebration. West Charlotte High’s on-time graduation rate, for instance, has jumped from 56 percent in 2012 to 86 percent last year.

Nearly all LIFT schools met or exceeded their state growth expectations last school year. And middle-schoolers at LIFT campuses outperformed their similarly challenged peers at non-LIFT campuses in reading for three consecutive years.

But other facts aren’t as rosy.

Although they outperformed their disadvantaged peers, less than 40 percent of LIFT middle schoolers scored at grade level in reading.

And West Charlotte isn’t the only high school to see graduation rates jump in recent years; rates have climbed across Charlotte-Mecklenburg high schools since the Class of 2013 became the first allowed to graduate with 24 credits rather than the old standard of 28.

Does this make Project LIFT a waste of time and money? Absolutely not.

West Charlotte’s graduation rate is rising more steeply than the school district’s rate overall. And LIFT Academy, a small satellite campus for West Charlotte High credited with cutting down on dropouts, is being replicated at five other schools. Also spreading to other campuses is the “Opportunity Culture” initiative, which pays strong teachers up to $23,000 extra to take on leadership roles at LIFT schools.

In medical research labs, every experiment doesn’t have to be a success for the laboratory to succeed. In fact, some “misses” are expected. You winnow out the wrong answers on the way to the right one.

Project LIFT’s leaders still have $12 million to spend this year and next. They haven’t “fixed” high-poverty schools. But they’ve shown us some areas where we should bear down harder at low-income campuses.

That’s good intelligence. It wasn’t cheap. But it is valuable.

Whether we do anything with it beyond Project LIFT is entirely up to us.

Eric: 704-358-5145; efrazier@charlotteobserver.com

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