Saturday, January 21, 2012

CMS board says 'I do' to Project LIFT

The leaders of Project LIFT are getting a warm reception from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, as they describe the CMS/LIFT partnership as an effort that unites westside families and corporate leaders in a chance to transform struggling schools and neighborhoods.

"Let's just go.  I'm ready to go,"  said school board member Tom Tate,  who said he was skeptical when the contract was presented before today's board-to-board confab.

"I can't think of a better partner to get married to,"  said Eric Davis,  referring to board Chair Ericka Ellis-Stewart's comment yesterday comparing the unprecedented partnership to a marriage.  "I'm in.  I'm all in."

The $55 million,  five-year plan for eight westside schools includes new efforts to put top-notch teachers in every classroom,  summer programs and year-round school to keep kids from losing academic ground during breaks,  technology for students and homes,  and charter-like flexibility for all public schools.  The philanthropy group would hire a lobbyist to work with the state legislature,  and pay the salaries of three administrators who would oversee the schools  (CMS would pay for two more staffers in that office).

"You have 100 percent blessing from me,"  said Rhonda Lennon,  who said she wants to see this kind of support, innovation and flexibility extended to all schools.  "Whether they're from the peninsula or whether they're from the projects, every child deserves it,"  she said.

LIFT board members said they're following the lead of CMS officials,  especially Chief Academic Officer Ann Clark,  in everything from pushing for flexibility to pursuing specific partners and strategies.   "They directed us.  They guided us.  They got us excited,"  said co-chair Stick Williams of the Duke Energy Foundation.

CMS board Chair Ericka Ellis-Stewart said the private money is "adding some muscle mass to help us do the heavy lifting."

Denise Watts,  the former CMS administrator who recently became LIFT's executive director,  would head the effort as a CMS employee whose salary is paid by Project LIFT and who would also report to LIFT's board.  She said the eight schools were chosen because they are at the bottom on virtually all measures of academic success,  and because spreading the money to more schools would dilute it.  But she and others say if results come in,  donors will be eager to replicate what works.

"When this community has shown success,  the money has always followed,"  said Michael Marsicano of the Foundation for the Carolinas.  If West Charlotte,  which now graduates just over half its students in four years,  were to hit 90 percent graduation,  "I guarantee this community will find the money to spread it across the system."

The LIFT folks gave the school board a 45-page draft of the group's strategic plan, and the board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a contract.


The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board has reconvened for the second day of its retreat feeling optimistic, but knowing huge challenges lie ahead.  Members say yesterday's talks helped them get past some of the hard feelings generated in recent weeks.  Facilitator Mary Kendrick, who was unknown to many members before the session started,  got rave reviews from everyone.

On Friday,  the board unanimously and enthusiastically agreed they want the next superintendent to be a "change agent."  Today they faced the tougher question:  What does that mean?

"I'm still not convinced that there is a true commitment to a change agent,"  Tim Morgan said.  "Maybe everybody has a different view of what a change agent looks like."

Tom Tate agreed:  "What are the changes that we want?  Does change mean what we are doing right now we don't want to do anymore?"

"We use the same words to define so many different things," concurred Kendrick.

The audience at this morning's retreat is tiny but powerful: Stick Williams and Anna Spangler Nelson, co-chairs of Project LIFT; Michael Marsicano, head of the Foundation for the Carolinas; Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown, a LIFT board member who's also a leader in community health care; Denise Watts, a former CMS administrator who's now LIFT's executive director; and Howard Haworth, a former state Board of Education chairman who remains engaged in education advocacy.

Most of them are here for the most meaty item up today:  A proposed partnership between CMS and the philanthropic Project LIFT to run and revive eight westside schools. That discussion is about to begin.

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