Despite success turning around many of its lowest-performing schools, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District found that nine of its schools were still struggling. To improve these schools, the district needed to reach beyond the schoolyards to the communities that surround them in order to make a difference in the lives of the 5,000 students who attend these schools.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District’s Strategic Staffing Initiative has been acclaimed for its success turning around school after school in the district. But Strategic Staffing alone wasn’t working for all of its struggling schools. Eight schools that fed into a ninth high school needed more help.
Ann Clark, Deputy Superintendent, Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District, explains: “While our efforts had an immediate impact in almost all our low-performing schools, eight schools that feed into West Charlotte High School needed extra support. Students at this high school only have a 50/50 chance of graduating–the lowest in the state. We needed to do more.”
Project LIFT (Leadership and Investment for Transformation) is a groundbreaking five-year initiative (launched in Jan. 2012) that aims to eliminate the educational disparities between minority and low-income students and their peers in Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District. “The project puts a laser-like focus on these nine schools. Our goal was to quickly learn best practices and apply those practices to other high school feeder patterns in the district,” explains Clark.
The idea for Project LIFT came from two graduates of West Charlotte High. One is the mayor of Charlotte. The other is the head of a philanthropic foundation in the community. “These two came together and said, ‘We cannot be graduates of West Charlotte High School, live in this community, and watch what has happened to our high school without doing something.’ So they became co-chairs of Project LIFT and singlehandedly raised $55 million from local community organizations, individual donors, and corporate foundations,” says Clark.
With the ultimate goal of elevating the West Charlotte High graduation rate to 90%, Project LIFT became “one of the most amazing partnerships I’ve seen evolve in my 30-year career in the district,” says Clark. The funders reached out to the broader community–school nurses, psychologists, social workers, nonprofit agencies, the Department of Social Services, the court system and more–to help support these students from fragile neighborhoods.
Continuity of Care: In the past, Communities in Schools, an organization that works to improve the lives of children through the public school system, assigned one site coordinator for the elementary schools, one for the middle school, and two for the high school to manage social services. “But Project LIFT taught us that continuity was important.” So Clark requested that the middle school coordinator “move up” with the students and stay with them through graduation. “We realized that we should be doing this across the district because those transition years are hard, particularly from 8th to 9th grade,” adds Clark. The district also increased the number of site coordinators in this particular feeder pattern and hopes to add additional site coordinators in some of our other high school feeder patterns as well.
Coordination of Services—the Story of Reid Park Elementary: Reid Park’s principal was chosen for her ability to use wraparound services to help students beyond the classroom. She inspired the department of social services, the health department, the medical centers, the county, the United Way, and all the nonprofits in the community, to work together because they were all working with the same kids. “Everyone had a different reason for being in a specific child’s life. But unless you get everyone around the table working together, you don’t have a focused approach to supporting that child,” says Clark.
The principal appointed a case manager to work with each child and his or her family. That case manager then coordinated all the different people who were working with those children and developed a plan so that the critical wraparound services would be in place through graduation. “That’s because the principal at Reid Park Elementary had the license to think about what really made sense for her kids…” not just in the classroom, but beyond.
Information: “The next step is a community portal where every child will have an ID number,” says Clark. “If you interface with that student (with parental permission) you will have access to his or her information–whether you’re a juvenile judge, a police officer, a school principal, a teacher, or a volunteer for the United Way.
West Charlotte High School and its eight feeder schools have only completed the first year of the five-year Project LIFT, so it is too soon to have measurable results. However, the schools have seen some early success, specifically in the summer school program.
Based on these results, the district leadership is optimistic and sees this partnership as a valuable model for the remaining feeder schools to replicate.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District partnered with Educational Resource Strategies (ERS) to help them understand the value of community partnerships. Ann Clark says, “We came to view ERS as part of our team. ERS pressed us hard to dig below the surface and challenge long-standing traditions. They are not a vendor, they’re a partner. What an amazing relationship it continues to be.”