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Project L.I.F.T Efforts Get Underway At West Charlotte Schools

Nine public schools in West Charlotte are about to have $55 million extra dollars funneled to them over the next five years. It's an experiment called Project L.I.F.T. Some of the city's largest community and family foundations are behind the effort. They're partnering with CMS to try to boost student achievement at West Charlotte High School and at elementary and middle schools that feed it. Those are some of the district's most troubled schools. Altogether, about 7,000 students attend those schools. WFAE's Lisa Miller talks with host Scott Graf about where Project L.I.F.T. stands now: SCOTT: Lisa, we've been hearing about Project L.I.F.T. for about a year. How did this all come about? LISA: A group of community leaders, CMS officials and philanthropists came together to look at ways to close the achievement gap between African American and Hispanic students and white students and to boost the graduation rate. They started looking specifically at West Charlotte because that school has the lowest graduation rate in the district at 54 percent. Most students there and at the schools that feed into it come from poor families. The district has already begun paying extra attention to many of these schools. SCOTT: So what does the Project L.I.F.T plan call for? LISA: In many ways it continues what the district has tried to do with getting strong teachers in these schools. About $23 million is going toward recruitment and performance bonuses as well as teacher training. Another $16 million is going toward providing more after-school, summer, and pre-school programs. And then there's also money for trying to engage parents and mentor students. Social workers will be on campus to provide case management for entire families and there will even be a medical mobile unit rotating between each of the nine schools every day. Providing better technology is also part of the plan. Project L.I.F.T plans to give most of the kids computers and provide home internet access at a very low cost. SCOTT: So how does it work with all this private money and influence going toward public schools? LISA: CMS officials say they're certainly still in charge. But they have agreed to partner with Project L.I.F.T, giving these schools a whole lot more flexibility than your typical public school. SCOTT: So they'll basically be functioning like charter schools? LISA: Yes, there are some similarities, and the group has said it wants charter-like authority. But, of course, there are limits by law. And there is a plan to spend some money on lobbying efforts to get waivers from some state requirements. SCOTT: So, Lisa, tell us about the person who's heading up Project L.I.F.T. then? Lisa: That's Denise Watts and she's helped lead a turnaround effort at one of the West Charlotte schools that closed last year. She's actually a CMS employee, but her salary is paid by Project L.I.F.T. A lot of her work right now is making sure she has the right staff at schools. This has been causing teachers some anxiety. They're worried they'll just be dismissed if they don't pass muster with their principals. Watts is going around to all the schools right now to allay some of those concerns, but also to make sure teachers know what's expected of them. I went to a meeting at Allenbrook Elementary this week and here's what she told teachers there. WATTS: This is not about coming in and shaking up and getting rid of everybody, okay. This is about taking a look at what it takes to get this school to the next level and making some real good decisions about moving forward. LISA: Teachers are expected to completely buy into the Project L.I.F.T. plan. If teachers feel like this isn't what they want, they can ask to be transferred and CMS will find them a different place. SCOTT: So how are teachers at Allenbrook feeling about all this? LISA: Well, many said they felt better hearing about the plan and there was some excitement too. Here's Jennifer Brinn who teaches kindergarten there. BRINN: Being a first year teacher I'm here till 6:30 every night and I come in early and I'm constantly doing things on the weekend. Being a Project L.I.F.T school, I'll have those resources to go to and say, 'Where is my time going to make the most impact and what resources can I utilize to make the most impact?' LISA: But there were still teachers who said they were anxious. SCOTT: So five years go by. All the money's gone. What happens at that point? LISA: Well, the hope is 90 percent of the kids at these schools will be proficient in their studies and West Charlotte will have a 90 percent graduation rate. But the key is even if that happens, how do you keep that success up? I asked Denise Watts that and here's what she said. WATTS: The staff will be here. So those people will exist beyond the expiration date of the money. Additionally, what we hope in the next 5 years, our state and our local governments will figure out a way to compensate teachers so that we can treat all teachers like they're professional and pay them like professionals. LISA: Of course, that means a lot more money. She hopes the program does so well that the public will be able to support that extra investment.