Friday, February 3, 2012

Preparing for LIFToff

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools'  new Project LIFT Zone officially opens on Feb. 27,  but Zone Superintendent Denise Watts reported to work this week.  The zone is the offspring of a union between CMS and Project LIFT,  designed to see what $55 million in private money can do to turn around nine struggling schools.

Yes, the earlier reports said eight schools.  That's the first news out of the new administrative office: Ashley Park PreK-8 School had been left off the list of schools that feed into West Charlotte High, so the new total is nine.

This kind of public-private partnership to run public schools is unique for CMS and rare in the nation, so the new zone (Project LIFT Zone is the official name) will be watched closely.   Here's what I've learned so far:

Watts will make $150,000 in her new job, with private money covering the cost (she was earning just under $135,000 a year when she left a similar position with CMS last summer to lead LIFT).  She's a CMS employee, reporting to Chief Academic Officer Ann Clark, but she'll also continue her fund-raising and partnership work with donors as executive director of LIFT.  CMS will hire an executive director (paid with public money) to handle the day-to-day oversight of the schools.

Christian Friend will also be a LIFT zone executive director,  with his $100,000 salary paid by private money.  Friend moves from the CMS accountability office  (where he earned $83,600) and will handle evaluation,  strategy and project management,  Watts said.  Part of the plan is that LIFT will require all groups that get grants to set aside 5 percent to cover the cost of independent third-party evaluation,  she said.  Donors want to be sure they've got a good handle on what's working and what's not.  Board members told the school board they expect some of their efforts to fail,  and it's important to be able to identify and replicate what's really working.

The LIFT Zone plans to have its offices in the Beatties Ford Road corridor,  amid the neighborhoods and schools the staff is working with.  But the building isn't available yet,  so for now the staff will work from the old Villa Heights Elementary,  along with the two central administrative zones that oversee CMS' high-poverty Title I schools.  Clark says CMS does not plan to relocate or reduce staff in those zones,  which currently have the nine LIFT schools on their roster.

The administrative mechanics will no doubt spark debate,  as people puzzle over an arrangement that gives private donors a previously unheard-of role in running public schools.  But the most intriguing part remains to come,  as we see what LIFT can do with schools, families and neighborhoods.

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