Project LIFT has raised just over $55 million to improve west Charlotte schools, leaders announced Thursday.
A $4 million grant from the Knight Foundation helped the philanthropic group, whose name stands for Leadership and Investment for Transformation, hit its goal for spending over the next five years. The $55 million will go toward recruiting top faculty, providing summer school, boosting technology and other efforts to improve academic results at some of the city’s weakest schools.
The effort has been in the works since 2010, when a group of corporate donors and philanthropists started crafting a plan to jolt the pace of improvement at struggling schools. The public-private partnership with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is already drawing national attention. Its goals include boosting West Charlotte High School’s graduation rate from 54 percent in 2011 to 90 percent in 2016.
“This community has the audacity to think it can accomplish great things, even during troubling times,” said Richard “Stick” Williams of the Duke Energy Foundation, co-chair of the Project LIFT board.
Williams and co-chair Anna Spangler Nelson wouldn’t give a precise tally of pledges, saying the group is still working to land some grants that could push the total well past $55 million. Nelson said a $10,000 check from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg arrived Thursday morning.
The $4 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will provide about 3,200 laptop computers for K-5 students and staff a community engagement office for the West Charlotte corridor. The lime-green laptops are specially designed for children and are “almost indestructible,” said Susan Patterson of the Knight Foundation’s Charlotte office. They’ll be kept at school initially but eventually will go home with the students, she said.
The Presbyterian Healthcare Foundation also helped hit the goal by providing a mobile clinic that will visit neighborhoods where students live. The service is valued at $1.8 million, and has already provided health screenings and immunizations to about 300 students.
Project LIFT is helping pay for a new administrative zone that oversees West Charlotte High and the eight schools that feed into it. It has already provided teacher recruitment and retention bonuses to prepare for the 2012-13 school year, and is providing academic summer programs for about 1,800 at-risk students.
“We know at the end of the five years we will see a different student, a different community, a different set of schools than what we see today,” CMS board Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart said. “We know that we have a number of challenges ahead, but I think as united partners ... we can do it. We can push forward to success.”
When the project went public in January 2011, it had $40.5 million in commitments, including $10 million each from the Bank of America Foundation, the C.D. Spangler Foundation and the Leon Levine Foundation. Other original donors were the Duke Energy Foundation ($5 million), Wells Fargo Foundation ($2.5 million), Foundation for the Carolinas ($2 million) and Belk Foundation ($1 million).
The board had hoped to hit $55 million by July 2011, but found itself well short of that goal and added a year of fund-raising. Organizers had said all along that reaching the full target was important, with the big pledges hinging on others filling the gap. “We don’t want to settle for half-measures,” Williams said at the time.
Nelson noted that $55 million sounds like a lot, but spread over five years it’s less than 1 percent of the annual CMS operating budget. With about 7,000 students in the LIFT schools, it’s about $1,500 per student per year, she said.
“While this is an important milestone, we fully realize that our work has only just begun,” Nelson said. “This will be a challenging five-year effort, requiring the hard work, strong support and faith of many partners.”
Get more details about the project at www.projectliftcharlotte.org.