Proposed calendar for Project LIFT schools: 20 extra days in class

Proposed calendar for Project LIFT schools: 20 extra days in class

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by ANN DOSS HELMS / The Charlotte Observer

WCNC.com

Posted on October 5, 2012 at 6:23 AM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Students in Project LIFT schools could spend 20 extra days in class next year if project officials decide there’s enough parent and faculty support.

Under a preliminary calendar presented to about 60 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools parents and employees at Walter G. Byers School on Thursday, students in nine westside schools could start July 22, five weeks before most N.C. students, and end their year on June 19, seven days after most schools dismiss.

The goal: Provide extra learning time for about 7,100 students at schools where academic skills and graduate rates have been stalled among the district’s lowest. The cost: $4 million to $5 million a year, coming from private donations, to pay employees and keep buildings open an extra month.

“It’s time to try something new. What we’ve done in the past is just not working,” said Tracy Osborne, a teacher at Ranson Middle.

That was the dominant reaction Thursday, though many indicated they still have qualms and questions. Denise Watts, administrator in charge of the LIFT schools, plans to keep seeking public feedback this month, report on findings in November and take a proposal for the 2013-14 calendar to the school board in December.

Donors have pledged $55 million over the next five years for Project LIFT (for Leadership and Investment for Transformation), a quest to transform West Charlotte High and the eight schools that feed into it. The state legislature granted those schools special permission to extend the 185-day public school calendar (so far CMS has gotten waivers to stay at 180 days for students).

Watts told Thursday’s group the state is watching to see if the LIFT schools can make big enough academic gains to justify public spending for more schools. Although she did not offer details, she said research has shown that extra time is an effective way to help students at risk of failure.

Under the proposal Watts presented, LIFT students would go to school 200 days, with two-week breaks in October and April. They would also have roughly the same winter break as other CMS students and observe the same holidays. Teachers would have 15 paid work days, compared with nine for most CMS teachers.

Watts said the schools would hold camps and programs during the breaks at no cost to families, offering such enrichment as robotics, music and arts. Students’ summer break would shrink from 12 weeks to four, saving more than $1,000 per student for families who pay an average of $130 a week for summer camps, Watts said.

With work days, teachers would have less than three weeks off in the summer, a concern for some at the meeting. Watts said the goal is to reduce stress and absenteeism for teachers and students by having shorter, more frequent breaks.

The biggest concerns centered on high school, where parents said many students use their full summer break to earn money or attend activities such as college-prep programs and athletic practice.

After the presentation, Watts asked the group to stand in one place if they oppose the plan, another if they support it and a third if they aren’t sure. Only three chose firm opposition.

“For high school it’s just very hard. I think it’s a disadvantage,” said a woman who identified herself as a parent who used to teach.

Just under 20 joined the “not sure” group. Gail McMillan, who has a child at a LIFT school and teaches at a non-LIFT school, said the biggest concerns had to do with the short summer break for teachers and the difficulty of coordinating schedules for families like hers that have mixed calendars. Ranson Middle and West Charlotte High have magnet programs that pull students from outside the LIFT zone, which could lead to siblings with different schedules.

“Overall I like the idea. It’s just tough trying to figure out the logistics,” McMillan said afterward.

About 32 joined the group showing enthusiastic support, with the potential for academic gains as their biggest motivator.

Thelma Byers Bailey, who volunteers at the host school named for her father, said her father would be proud.

“This is such a ray of hope,” she said, “for our community and our children.”

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