Project LIFT first-year report: Lots of work remains

ahelms@charlotteobserver.comMarch 27, 2014 

  • About Project LIFT

    CMS agreed to give the private Project LIFT board, which has raised $55 million for a five-year improvement project, partial control over running nine schools: West Charlotte High; Ranson Middle; Ashley Park, Bruns, Byers, Druid Hills and Thomasboro preK-8 schools; and Allenbrook and Statesville Road elementaries.

    See the first-year report to the school board at http://bit.ly/1o4qTkW.

An unprecedented community investment in school improvement brought disappointing academic results in the first year of Project LIFT, but there are signs of hope, a new analysis shows.

Last year’s ninth-graders at West Charlotte High were more likely than those the previous year to be promoted and less likely to be truant or get suspended, according to a Project LIFT evaluation released this week. Freshman-year success is a strong predictor of on-time graduation.

Project LIFT, which stands for Leadership and Investment for Transformation, unites private donors and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in a five-year quest to change student lives at West Charlotte and its eight feeder schools. By 2017, donors hope the $55 million investment results in a 90 percent graduation rate, with 90 percent of students in lower grades testing at grade level.

The schools serve about 7,000 students, most of them from low-income homes, and have historically been some of the lowest-performing in CMS.

West Charlotte’s graduation rate jumped from 56 percent in 2012 to 71 percent in 2013, the project’s biggest measurable first-year gain. But not only did the majority of Project LIFT students fail the tougher state exams that debuted last year, they did worse on reading and math tests than their counterparts in other CMS schools.

Superintendent Heath Morrison and Project LIFT Zone Superintendent Denise Watts acknowledged that the test scores were disappointing. But both noted that many of the investments in teachers, technology and extra school time were just gearing up last year.

“One of the reasons LIFT was a five-year project is we have to give these things time to mature,” Watts said.

In coming years, “we’re going to see some of those academic areas pop,” Morrison told the school board.

Tracking academics

The Project LIFT board pays Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit research firm, to track results. Researchers compared data for Project LIFT students with that of other students who have comparable demographics and academic history at 33 other CMS schools.

The LIFT students, on average, underperformed the comparison students. But there was wide variation among the LIFT schools. For instance, students at Allenbrook and Statesville Road elementary schools and Ashley Park and Thomasboro preK-8 schools did better than the comparison students on the math tests given in grades 3-8, while those at Bruns and Druid Hills preK-8 schools fell far below.

Bruns was also the lowest on reading, with only 13 percent scoring at grade level.

Watts noted that Bruns got a new principal this year. The school is “a tier one, all-hands-on-deck focus,” she told the school board. “I promise you we’ll see different data.”

The LIFT students did slightly better than the comparison students on fifth- and eighth-grade science tests, with 37 percent of LIFT students and 33 percent of the others passing. Fifty-six percent of students at Walter G. Byers preK-8 passed the science tests, topping the CMS average.

West Charlotte’s ninth-graders were less likely to be on track to graduate than counterparts at the comparison high schools – West and East Mecklenburg, Rocky River and Vance. But the report shows major improvements over the previous year’s freshman class at West Charlotte.

In 2011-12, the report said 43 percent of West Charlotte ninth-graders earned enough credits for promotion, compared with 71 percent at the other four schools. Last year 63 percent of West Charlotte freshmen and 69 percent at the comparison schools were promoted.

The report shows similar trends for attendance and suspensions:The percentage of ninth-graders who missed at least 20 percent of school days or who were suspended more than once dropped significantly at West Charlotte but remained higher than at the other schools.

Four more years

The report said recruitment efforts and hiring bonuses were successful in attracting high-quality teachers but noted that some of them left during the year, although no numbers were provided. This year Project LIFT started an “opportunity culture” program to put some of the most effective teachers into highly-paid jobs that let them work with other teachers and larger groups of students.

Year-round calendars were launched at four LIFT schools this year, in hopes that the additional time and/or shorter breaks will reduce the traditional academic losses that occur during summer vacation. Project LIFT is working to provide high-quality summer programs for students at the other schools.

Last year donors worked at getting laptops, Internet access and other technology into schools and homes. This year, Watts said, the focus is on making sure everyone knows how to use digital devices to boost learning.

The goal of Project LIFT’s tracking is to identify successes that can be spread to other schools, while pulling the plug on experiments that don’t yield results.

For instance, the schools initially offered students free access to two summer programs: Building Educated Leaders for Life, or BELL, and Freedom Schools. Watts told the school board she considers Freedom Schools an excellent program and enrolls her own children. But participants didn’t show the measurable gains that BELL students did, so Project LIFT is now using only BELL.

Even though there’s no data yet on the opportunity culture project, CMS is expanding it to 17 more schools next year.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms

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