An unusual public-private school improvement partnership in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school system is raising hopes about its potential for improving the lives of some of Charlotte’s neediest students even as it generates concerns about its nontraditional funding and governance structure.
Project Leadership and Investment for Transformation, or Project LIFT, is a $55 million investment from corporate and family foundations aimed at improving the academic outcomes for a cluster of public schools in west Charlotte that serve some of the city’s most disadvantaged students. The goal is to provide resources and boost the academic performance of the 7,400 students at West Charlotte High School and the eight schools that feed into it.
Project LIFT, which is led by a foundation-sponsored area superintendent who reports to both the private foundations and the chief academic officer of the 141,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg public school district, was officially launched in 2011 and entered into a formal agreement with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board in early 2012. Its schools are in their first year of implementation. More than 22 organizations have partnered with Project LIFT, whose 13-member governing board funnels its donations into the Foundation for the Carolinas, a community foundation based in Charlotte.
The project’s governance arrangement is unique in the United States, but is part of a trend toward public-private partnership that has arisen partly due to school districts’ budget constraints, said Janelle Scott, a professor of education and African-American studies at the University of California at Berkeley.
“Foundations want to help school districts to take risks they otherwise wouldn’t be able to,” she said.
But some are concerned by the role the funders will play in making educational decisions and worry whether the changes funded with outside money will be sustainable.
Many of the project’s strategies for improving student performance, like an extended school day and year and increased hiring autonomy for principals, are more common in public charter schools, said Ann Clark, the chief academic officer of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, but Project LIFT schools are still considered to be part of the traditional public school system. One of Project LIFT’s goals is to show that “this can be done within the public school structure,” said Ms. Clark.
The project began as a collaboration between the Leon Levine Foundation and the C.D. Spangler Foundation, both based in Charlotte, and soon expanded to include five other local and national foundations.
The participating foundations had mainly been involved in education before, but were frustrated by the “persistent achievement gap” and wondered if they could have a greater impact by working together, said Stick Williams, the president of the Duke Energy Foundation and co-chair of the Project LIFT board. Inspired by Geoffrey Canada’s work in New York City’s Harlem community, the group decided to focus on just one group of high-needs schools in west Charlotte.
The initiative focused on four “interventions”: time (extended school days and years), talent (targeted teacher recruitment and retention efforts), technology (including a 1-to-1 laptop program), and parental and community investment. The governance board also has a legislative agenda, and has already successfully obtained an exemption from a state law regulating school start and end dates.
When the effort was announced in January 2011, $40.5 million had been promised, but the board decided that the project would not launch unless it hit a target of $55 million. More than $57 million has been raised so far, and the project currently has partners providing in-kind services that include tutoring and health services.
Balance of Power
Negotiating the balance of power has been a task: The superintendent of the Project LIFT zone, Denise Watts, reports directly to and is paid by the Project LIFT board , but also reports to the district’s chief academic officer and supervises the principals in the zone. That arrangement was only arrived at after some negotiation, as Ms. Watts’ position initially reported only to the Project LIFT board. Feeling that she had “influence but no power” over the schools in the project, Ms. Watts advocated for moving her position into the district so that principals in Project LIFT schools reported to her. Project LIFT also pays the salaries of an executive director focused on evaluation and a human resources specialist, but all other staff members are still paid through and report through the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system.
Moving Ms. Watts’ position into the school district streamlined operations, said Ms. Clark. But, she said, “it’s worth acknowledging that the Project LIFT board still has the key lever” and determines how its funds are spent. Ms. Watts, who has been working in the Charlotte schools since 2000, said that balancing the commitments is a juggling act.
In this first school year, “talent is the number one priority,” Ms. Watts said. Project LIFT principals were able to remove teachers they did not believe were mission-aligned, and offered signing, performance, and retention bonuses for others. Ms. Watts said that the zone had typically started the school year with close to 100 vacancies, but this year there were only five. Only the high school has a new principal, Ms. Watts said, but all of the principals have been receiving new leadership training at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, through Project LIFT.
Tonya Kales, a principal at Ashley Park, a pre-K-8 school in the zone, said the training and the hiring autonomy had provided her with support and allowed her to build the school culture she wanted to create: “There’s power in being in a room with people who are all mission-aligned.”
The initiative’s focus on technology was suggested through community meetings, Ms. Watts said, and has begun to gain some traction. Elementary school students will receive laptops and teachers have received training on new software. Some families of Project LIFT students—about 80 so far—will receive subsidized Internet access in their homes.
Project LIFT has also yielded some striking in-kind donations: A $1.8 million gift from the Presbyterian Healthcare Foundation in Charlotte provided vaccinations for free to Project LIFT students. That effort reduced the number of students who were suspended for not having their immunizations up to date, as was the state’s policy, from nearly 60 last year to only three or so at the start of this school year, said Ms. Watts.
The most publicized policy change so far has been the effort to expand the school day and year. A campaign to raise community support for that effort yielded mixed results, with some families saying they do not want the longer school day and even some key funders wondering if it is the best use of the project’s money. Some Project LIFT students already received extra summer programming last year through the Building Educated Leaders for Life, or BELL, program. A hearing on the extended-day proposal is scheduled for January 22.
The zone’s curriculum is the same as the rest of the district’s, said Ms. Watts.
Project LIFT’s work is being closely watched by its investors and by school district officials in Charlotte and nationwide. Ms. Clark said, “this will help all of us as a community learn about how we make investments … you have to have good results for the district or Project LIFT to invest in you.”
Because the continued investments are contingent upon results, some have concerns about whether the program will last. “If we feel like there’s not much actually happening, we’ve agreed that we ought to pull the plug and not throw money away,” said Mr. Williams.
Ms. Clark said that she believed that if the donors, most of whom had worked with the school system before, see that their investment was successful, they might be likely to continue their support. “Fifty-five million is a significant investment, but $10 to $11 million a year in the types of budgets these foundations and the county are dealing with is not that significant ... Our community can afford it,” she said. She said the district would also hope to learn from Project LIFT’s successes.
But others, including Carol Sawyer, a co-founder of an equity-focused nonprofit called Mecklenburg Acts, said her group was concerned about what would happen at the end of five years. “It’s not that you can fix a school once and it stays fixed,” Ms. Sawyer said.
Richard McElrath, a member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board who taught in the district for three decades, said that while he voted to approve Project LIFT, he was concerned about the program’s sustainability.
“I voted for it as an intervention. But you’ve got to look for the cause—how did it get this way?” he said. “I don’t want us to think that we can be successful as a city having poor people over here, middle income over here, rich people over here.”
West Charlotte is the alma mater of many of Charlotte’s prominent citizens, but its academic reputation has deteriorated as its population has grown poorer and as the city’s busing program ended because of a court order in 1999. The school’s on-time graduation rate was 56 percent in 2012.
The special attention to west Charlotte has caused some conflict, though.
“It creates a zone of privilege within a unified school system,” said Susan Harden, an assistant professor of education at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. “I don’t think you’ll have support for a unified district for long if you single out these as the special kids.”
In well-off Ballantyne, a neighborhood in south Charlotte, there was serious discussion of seceding from the city of Charlotte and from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public school district, with some residents fearing that too much money was going to other schools.
There are also concerns that while Project LIFT may benefit some students, it maintains or even promotes a school system that is increasingly segregated by race and socioeconomic status. “Project LIFT represents a paradigm shift for Charlotte. Charlotte at one point worked toward integration, and West Charlotte High School was one of the models of that integration effort…now the notion is, pour extra money in and educate children in isolation. That troubles me,” said Ms. Sawyer.
Ms. Watts said that while such concerns were not “invalid or outlandish...at the same time, it’s the cards these kids have been dealt.”
“People in decisionmaking positions continue to think about whether this is the best way to deal with this,” she added, “but this is what we have today, this is where we are, and we need to serve these kids.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2013 edition of Education Week as Funders and N.C. District Team Up to Run Schools