Project LIFT is looking at spending up to $4.7 million a year to add 20 school days for students in nine west Charlotte schools. When Zone Superintendent Denise Watts recently updated the school board on the prospect, board member Eric Davis had a question: How will you measure the academic value of those extra days, apart from all the other improvement efforts?
"That's something we struggle with," Watts said. The $55 million, five-year project to improve the life prospects of some 7,100 students is working on several fronts, from recruiting better teachers to strengthening family involvement.
If it works, one of the challenges will be teasing out the value of each change.
When it comes to shrinking summer break and adding school days, Watts and her crew start with the premise that the kids who are most at risk of failure are the ones most likely to lose ground during long school breaks. They're showing this video to illustrate the problem.
They're also looking at reports and research, including this American School Board Journal article about summer programs that work, this WestEd summary of efforts to extend the school year, and this 2010 summary of the academic research on the benefits. Short version: There are signs that extra time in school can make a difference, but it's no silver bullet and it costs a lot.
This past summer, LIFT went with the less radical option of offering voluntary summer programs to about 1,700 students, at no charge to their families. Some went to BELL camps (read an Observer article about this summer's BELL programs here). That program did pre- and post-testing that showed some benefits, Watts said. But about 100 students who were offered the chance to attend didn't accept, illustrating one of the challenges of optional summer camps, Watts told the board.
Other students went to Freedom Schools, a summer reading program that's growing in the Charlotte area (read an Observer article here). That effort got "mixed reviews" and doesn't have the same kind of data on academic gains, Watts said.
Skeptics and cynics have been vocal about Project LIFT. Some of you will say all this shows that it's a waste of money, that "those kids" are destined for failure and "those families" aren't pulling their weight.
At this point, I'm willing to give the leaders of the philanthropic board and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools credit for being candid about the immensity of the challenge they've tackled. Breaking the cycle of poverty and school failure is extraordinarily difficult. Even measuring the results is going to be tough. If the leaders were whipping out glowing reports at the outset, I'd be much more wary of their willingness to do that work.
Davis told Watts that he expects her to ensure that CMS can measure the value of investing in a longer school year.
" 'Ensure' is a strong word," Watts said.
"It sure is," Davis replied. "That's why I'm using it."