The biggest surprise about the debut of Project LIFT has been the intensity of public reaction, good and bad, organizers said at a national forum in Charlotte Monday.
Representatives of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the donors who launched the quest to pump $55 million into nine west Charlotte schools spoke to about 100 people. Federal education officials and America's Promise Alliance, which convened the business/education summit that continues today, took note of Charlotte's public-private partnership as soon as it was announced. The group highlighted it Monday for others seeking ways for businesses to improve schools.
Charles Bowman of Bank of America and Richard "Stick" Williams of the Duke Energy Foundation praised CMS leaders' willingness to give donors a voice in decision-making and to promise hard data on results. But all involved were quick to note that there are no "proof points" yet, with the classroom work starting in 2012-13 at West Charlotte High and eight schools that feed into it. Project LIFT is "an energizing case study," rather than a proven success, said Michael Marsicano of the Foundation for the Carolinas.
Bowman, whose bank's charitable foundation pledged $10 million over five years, said public enthusiasm has been overwhelming since the group went public in January 2011 with $41 million in pledges. "People are jumping all over themselves to get on board," Bowman told the group. But he said he has also been disappointed that other big donors didn't respond as eagerly. "The business community has not been as committed as a whole yet," he said.
Project LIFT extended its deadline for raising $55 million from July 1, 2011, to July 1 of this year. Denise Watts, the group's executive director and zone superintendent for the nine schools, said recently she expects to hit the goal or get "darn close." But if the crew has $55 million in hand, with the target date less than three weeks off, none of them mentioned it to the national audience.
One audience member asked how LIFT organizers assured "true, authentic communication" with the community, rather than doing the "goody-goody drive-bys" that mark some school reform projects. Everyone on the panel said discussions with parents, students and community leaders from the West Charlotte corridor was essential in crafting the plans and carrying them out. Watts noted that she held weekly advisory board meetings at the LIFT schools, and recently moved to an office just off Beatties Ford Road to be closer to the community.
Still, I noticed that the group at the Ritz-Carlton heard from donors and CMS administrators, but no one from the West Charlotte neighborhoods.