Education is one of the pillars of a strong community. In the following Q&A, Stick Williams discusses Project L.I.F.T., an innovative program he co-chairs. Created to dramatically improve Charlotte’s lowest-performing schools, Project L.I.F.T. may prove to be a national model for public/private partnerships.
What is Project L.I.F.T., and how did you get involved?
L.I.F.T. stands for Leadership and Investment for Transformation. It’s aimed at eliminating the achievement gap separating the 7,500 students in the West Charlotte corridor from those in other parts of Mecklenburg County.
West Charlotte High School was once a model of integration. But over the past couple of decades, academic achievement has plummeted, and parental involvement has waned. The school’s graduation rate is currently 51 percent; that’s the lowest in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) system.
But academic problems don’t begin in high school. They often begin at the elementary- and middle-school levels, and we need to intervene there as well.
Several of us in the philanthropic community — both corporate and private foundations — recognized the need to help our highest poverty schools. But we were spurred to action when educator and social activist Geoffrey Canada came to Charlotte to speak about the Harlem Children’s Zone. He’s had remarkable success in turning around low-performing schools. We began to talk about how we might achieve similar results.
How are you going about it?
The day we publicly announced this effort — on Jan. 31, 2011 — we already had $40 million in commitments from private and business foundations. Our fundraising goal is $55 million, so we had a solid head start.
But it takes more than dollars and good intentions. We needed to connect with those closest to the challenges facing West Charlotte and its feeder schools. In community forums, we asked parents and local leaders about their needs and ideas. We think our commitment to inclusion — from the outset — sets us apart from other efforts.
In the forums, we heard much about the need for access to updated technology. We’re responding to that. Our plan calls for private money to pay for better technology, training and Internet access, along with recruiting top teachers, extending the instruction day, adding summer programs and providing family support services. In other words, we’re bringing some of the most effective attributes of the best charter schools to public schools!
What progress have you made?
In January, CMS approved our plan to hire Denise Watts as zone superintendent for the West Charlotte corridor schools and director of Project L.I.F.T. Denise is a former teacher and principal, with a track record for turning around student achievement. She has accountability to both Project L.I.F.T. and CMS.
We’re getting national attention for our efforts. Project L.I.F.T. leaders were invited to share our model at a July 2011 White House forum on education reform. And America’s Promise Alliance, a nonprofit youth advocacy organization founded by Colin Powell, honored Project L.I.F.T. as a model to replicate across the country – and within CMS.
As for results, implementation is just beginning. This is a five-year commitment; we’re taking a long-range view.
How will you measure the project’s success?
We’re working closely with CMS to develop the right metrics. We have also gotten advice from experts from across the country about what is important to measure. But I can tell you that we’ll be looking at test scores and graduation rates.
You obviously feel a deep, personal commitment to this effort. Where does that come from?
Yes, it’s personal. That’s because the kids we’re trying to reach through this program are me. I grew up in the projects and went to all-black schools through high school. I know there are talented kids in these communities who are just not getting opportunities. I fear losing another generation of students. We can’t let that happen.
I believe we’re going to make a difference in Charlotte and that we’re building a model other cities can replicate. My involvement in Project L.I.F.T. is one of my highest priorities because of the potential to change communities — and change lives.