Eric Frazier

Dream of equity makes for heavy lift

Project LIFT superintendent Denise Watts and her staff are working to close the achievement gap.
Project LIFT superintendent Denise Watts and her staff are working to close the achievement gap. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

They call education the civil rights issue of our time.

If that’s true, let’s pause on this holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and consider Charlotte’s groundbreaking $55 million Project LIFT experiment. The ambitious public-private partnership aims to rejuvenate historically black West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools, but it sadly can’t be called an overwhelming success so far.

Three years into the five-year initiative, only one of its elementary schools has more than half its students on grade level; many LIFT campuses still lag other high-poverty schools in reading, math and high school exams.

Skeptics will call the project a waste of money and time. That would be as wrong as branding as failures all research that fell short of curing cancer. Scientists know those experiments point the way for the researcher who will conquer cancer one day.

Yes, it is frustrating. We’ve seen in Project LIFT’s struggles the same truths social reformers have encountered fighting poverty or drug addiction or family dysfunction in low-income communities nationwide. We see that the deeper we sink spades into the hard clay of the achievement gap, the clearer it becomes that we stand not on level ground, but deep in a hole dug over several centuries.

We like our problems and solutions tidy, like math equations. Hard work plus self-discipline equals success. But that’s not always how the real world works. Inter-generational poverty fires crazy variables into the mix – an absentee father, an alcoholic mother, a drug-addled sister.

And we ask 7-year-old boys and 15-year-old girls to balance the equation.

The rare few rise despite the jumble of numbers stacked against them. But most go with the flow of the ebbing tide. Turning the tide – that’s the key. And that’s hard. That takes time.

Project LIFT’s quest reflects the broader struggle for African-American advancement in the wake of the civil rights struggles.

Nobody’s standing in the schoolhouse door anymore. No snarling police dogs confront children arriving at the LIFT schools each morning. But the barriers confronting them remain just as real, just as pernicious.

The civil rights activists of the 1960s knew, as Dr. King famously said before his death, that not all of them would make it to the “promised land” of equal rights.

To all of the philanthropists who contributed to Project LIFT, to superintendent Denise Watts and all of its teachers and students, I say remember that point.

You might not reach your 90 percent graduation rate goal by 2017, or get 90 percent of students on grade level.

But that’s OK.

West Charlotte High’s graduation rate stands at 76 percent. It stood at 56 percent the year before Project LIFT launched. That’s progress.

Like those cancer research studies, Project LIFT doesn’t have to be the solution. It needs to move us closer to it.

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

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