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Can initiative LIFT struggling schools?
Long-term success of $55 million program is open to debate
Published Thursday, December 6, 2012 8:17 am
by Cheris F. Hodges

Project LIFT has lofty goals over the next five years.

Project LIFT, an initiative to boost academic achievement at public schools that feed into West Charlotte High School. The five-year, $55 million program is touted as a community-based effort to improve grades and graduation rates at West Charlotte, which had a 54 percent rate in 2011, near the bottom among Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.

But will the $55 million education initiative be worth the investment?

Project LIFT, which stands for Leadership Investment for Transformation, is in the first year of implementation, targeting schools in the Northwest Corridor that feed into West Charlotte High School. The project is charged with changing how students in low-performing schools learn.

The program works through Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and is implemented in nine schools that make up the Project LIFT zone. Those schools are: Allenbrook Elementary School, Ashley Park School K-8, Bruns Academy K-8, Druid Hills Academy K-8, Ranson Middle School, Statesville Road Elementary, Thomasboro Academy K-8, Walter G. Byers Academy K-8 and West Charlotte High.

Mitzi Sims Porter has a son and a daughter who attend West Charlotte High. She believes Project LIFT will have success in the corridor because there is accountability for the success of the schools.

“The way I see it, it’s bringing back a focus of what was there many years ago,” she said. “Because of the kind of students that typically go to school in that zone, you don’t have a lot of parent involvement. This will bring some focus and some resources to the schools that aren’t typically there. Adding the resources will help bridge the gap and give them the support they actually need.”

Project LIFT’s main goal is to raise the graduation rate at West Charlotte to 90 percent from its current 54 percent, one of the lowest in the district. Through technology, talent, time and community support, Project LIFT expects to change the outcome of students in the west corridor. With $55 million in place to fund the project, can LIFT meet its goals and can those goals be measured by the current model of the project?

Project LIFT Zone Superintendent Denise Watts said success is about student achievement and educational outcomes.

“We want to ensure that students that are in the grades prior to graduation also excel in terms of their proficiency and their growth on standardized tests. Those are measurable outcomes but what we’re hoping to do is really transform the way we educate kids in the Project LIFT zone.”

A major component of the project, according to Watts, is working with families who may have children in multiple grade levels. “In working with one family, you’re actually impacting more than one child,” she said.

Students in the Project LIFT zone can have a laptop –free of charge—to use at home and in the classroom. Microsoft has partnered with Project LIFT to provide software for the computers at a cost of $150 per device.

And even though another issue affecting education in the Northwest Corridor is poverty, Watts said after the initial informational meeting about the laptops and software, parents were ready to make the investment. 

“It has been my position on this since we started that families have to have skin in the game,” she said. “The package that the family will get is actually a $1,000 package when you add in the cost of the hardware, software and the internet access and we’re only asking the family to pay a tenth of that.”

Porter said Watts made it clear that the success of the schools is important to her and in the first few months Project LIFT being active, she’s seen changes.  Her son, who is a senior, said things are quieter at school. Students are focused and there are fewer disruptions.  She credits the additional programs added by Project LIFT for getting students to focus on their work.

“I think that it’s going help,” Porter said. “What Project LIFT will do is show students that they can come to school and get the resources that they need to be successful.”

Although Project LIFT will need community and family support, Watts said the initiative isn’t working to transform families. Rather its goal is to give parents the tools necessary to become better advocates for their children’s education.

“Project LIFT is a school-based and school-bound initiative to impact students educational outcomes with a goal of breaking the cycle of poverty and the cycle of being disadvantaged with these students,” she said. “We cannot do that in isolation. There has to be work and focus with families and work with other partners.”
But school board member Richard McElrath said he doesn’t know what Project LIFT is or if it’s going to work.

“What they’ve done is gone into the Beatties Ford Road corridor and they’re going to throw a ton of money at those folks in that corridor,” he said.  “There’s no doubt in my mind that for those kids it’s going to close the gap and for those kids in high school you’re probably going to get a higher percentage of them to finish high school. But I don’t know what that proves.”

McElrath said the fact that there’s a time frame of when the money goes in and when the money comes out of the neighborhood and the schools he doesn’t know what happens when the five year time period ends.

Richard “Stick” Williams, Project LIFT governance board co-chair and president of the Duke Energy Foundation, insists the initiative significantly moves the needle in closing the achievement gap and improving graduation rates.

“This collaboration has extraordinary promise and could have a great impact on changing culture around education and really making certain that we don’t lose a talented group of kids,” he said.

Success, he added, begins before the increase in West Charlotte’s graduation rates when third-graders are better prepared to learn.  “If we saw systemically that the 11th graders and the 10th graders and ninth graders were all on track to graduate and participating in meaningful summer programs and after school programs, I would consider that to be great success.”

But is five years enough to change the culture?

“One of the things that was bottom line for us is that everything in Project LIFT has to be replicable,” Williams said. “We didn’t want to do a one-time thing and get great success after three or four years and then walk away. We wanted this to be a laboratory for CMS and other school districts,” Williams said.

However, McElrath questions if Project LIFT is more than economic segregation.

“When the five years run out and you move to another corridor, what’s going to happen to this one?” he said. “Have you set up anyway that they can maintain that flow of income in that neighborhood? That’s all it’s about.”

McElrath asks if students in high poverty schools achieve goals set by Project LIFT, then what message does that send to the city?

“Do you want to prove that you can do that? Is that a model for the future of Charlotte to have a system of economically segregated schools?”

Williams said the goals of Project LIFT go beyond money. The philanthropic partners, which include the Belk Foundation, Foundation For The Carolinas, Wells Fargo Foundation and the Leon Levine Foundation, and the higher ups with CMS worked closely together to craft a lot of different piece of the program and after five years he believes the school system as a whole will see portions of the project that can be used to enhance the quality of education for all students.

“Many of the partners that we have are already involved in CMS, so it is a matter of them reshaping their relationship and their expectations of those third parties. They can do that without new money,” Williams said. “Another part of this is that we don’t know what’s going to happen as far as the economy is concerned. CMS lost about a $100 million or more due to the recession and challenges that the state and local government has had. With $100 million, they could do Project LIFT everywhere within CMS.”

After the funders finish Project LIFT, Williams said they’ll look at what worked and didn’t when it comes to the next round of education philanthropy.

“I don’t know if we would do another Project LIFT,” he said, “but this kind of collaboration and the kinds of things that we are getting from these third party vendors are going to be attractive to us when we consider how to do our philanthropy in the future.”


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