Thomasboro Academy is one of two Project LIFT schools where private money pays for 19 extra days of school and a year-round calendar. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
Thomasboro Academy is one of two Project LIFT schools where private money pays for 19 extra days of school and a year-round calendar. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Education

With gains scarce, CMS and donors pin hope on final 2 years of Project LIFT

January 13, 2016 07:32 PM

Three years into an ambitious public-private turnaround quest, students in Project LIFT schools continue to be less likely to pass exams and more likely to be suspended than counterparts in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, even when compared with other schools facing big challenges.

But CMS leaders and the private donors who pledged $55 million in hopes of transforming nine west Charlotte schools said Wednesday they remain committed.

Both groups cited the marriage metaphor used in news reports when they signed a contract in 2012. “Individually and collectively, this is about reaffirming our vows,” Superintendent Ann Clark said at a joint meeting to review data and discuss the future.

So far test scores show little sign that West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools are on track to meet the goal of 90 percent on grade level by 2017. Last year only one elementary school topped 50 percent.

We did not commit to climb Crowders Mountain. We committed to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

Superintendent Ann Clark, on targeting the most challenged schools

A crucial aspect of Project LIFT – it stands for Leadership and Investment for Transformation – was the decision to zero in on a group of schools that would, in theory, serve the same students from prekindergarten through graduation. The private donations have paid to recruit and train educators, buy educational technology, provide extra school time and help parents support their kids. The vision was that each year of support would push students closer to success.

In reality, only half the students enrolled in LIFT schools in 2012 were still there in 2015, and only 37 percent of LIFT students moving up to ninth grade went to West Charlotte. Some have moved, living the transient lives of families struggling for survival. Some have sought higher-performing magnets or charter schools, leaving the lowest-performing students behind, researchers say.

“If we had known that about two-thirds of our private money would be bled out … I don’t know that that we would have done it,” said philanthropist and Project LIFT co-chair Anna Spangler Nelson. But despite the unforeseen setbacks, which included constant churn in state testing and CMS leadership, Nelson said she, too, remains focused on the future.

West Charlotte’s rising graduation rate – 76 percent in 2015, up from 56 percent the year before Project LIFT began – is the strongest signal of hope. Rates are rising across North Carolina and the nation, though, and the independent researchers hired to track Project LIFT said they haven’t been able to parse out how much of the change can be attributed to special efforts at West Charlotte.

What the numbers say

The consultants from Research for Action, education specialists headquartered in Philadelphia, drilled deep on test scores, suspensions and attendance.

The constant flux in North Carolina’s testing makes it hard to say anything meaningful about year-to-year changes in scores, so the group has tracked the LIFT schools and a comparison group of 33 other high-poverty schools in CMS. On reading, math and high school exams, LIFT schools still fall short of the comparison group, and both fall well below CMS averages. On elementary and middle school science tests, LIFT schools edged out the comparison group.

But leaders noted that Project LIFT targeted the lowest-performing schools, so school-to-school comparisons could still give an edge to the comparison group. The researchers did additional analysis comparing LIFT students with other CMS students identified as having similar academic hurdles. On those ratings, LIFT students fared about the same and occasionally better.

Attendance in both groups of high-poverty schools has been steadily high – daily averages close to 95 percent – but LIFT schools had higher levels of out-of-school suspensions, the report shows. And those levels rose last year, despite efforts to find disciplinary alternatives that would keep students in class.

The researchers also looked at signs that West Charlotte ninth-graders are on track to graduate. While they remain worse off than freshmen in comparison schools, the three-year trend is moving in the right direction, the report says.

Year-round school

Two years ago Project LIFT launched one of its most dramatic efforts: revising the calendar at two schools to shorten the summer break and adding 19 days at two others.

So far the test scores show no clear benefit from the year-round calendars. But LIFT leaders noted that it’s still early, and that the anticipated benefit may have been offset by higher absences as families adjusted to the new calendar.

They also said that the four PreK-8 schools chosen for year-round calendars were the lowest performing in Project LIFT. The researchers presented an analysis of reading gains that indicated the 19 extra days at Druid Hills and Thomasboro might be paying off – and at lower cost than a summer reading camp that the donations have been supporting.

The final stretch

Project LIFT leaders said they’re still figuring out which initiatives to keep, what should be scrapped and what new strategies might ignite big gains in the remaining year and a half of the project.

Richard “Stick” Williams, a recently retired Duke Energy Foundation executive who co-chairs the LIFT board, said the project continues to generate national attention. He said real changes are taking place, even if the numbers don’t yet show it.

“When we see what’s happening to the children in these schools,” Williams said, “we aren’t quitting.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms