5-year philanthropic effort aims to use targeted funds, focus and flexible rules to turn around west Charlotte schools.
Those declarations came at Monday's unveiling of Project LIFT, a privately financed plan to pour $11 million a year for five years into West Charlotte High and seven elementary and middle schools that feed its student body.
The project's backers say they will help CMS recruit and retain high-performing educators, and will push for longer school days, and programs for summer classes and early-childhood education. They will also provide technology for students and help families better support their children's education.
The goal: to increase the graduation rate and close the achievement gap separating minority and low-income students from their middle-income and white peers.
Officials say to tackle the problems, the westside schools need charter-school-style flexibility on spending, school calendars and other issues.
"If it's good enough for KIPP Academy and other high-performing charter school models, then why is it not good enough for the 135,000 students in CMS?" asked Anna Spangler Nelson, co-chair of the study group leading the effort.
During the announcement ceremony, West Charlotte High student body president Aleisha Archie-McMillan sat among a group of high-achieving students whose ideas helped shape the plan.
Looking around at a gymnasium full of Charlotte business and political leaders, the 17-year-old senior couldn't help but take note of those who weren't there.
"It's a good idea, but the students here today for this announcement are the ones who are motivated and successful, the cream of the crop at West Charlotte," she said. "What's missing here are the students who are failing to succeed. If they want to make this thing successful, they need to reach out to the people who need it the most."
The group's organizers say that's what they have in mind. They picked West Charlotte because its 51 percent graduation rate ranked lowest in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. About 7,500 students attend classes in the West Charlotte feeder zone.
At the ceremony, officials from the Leon Levine Foundation, the C.D. Spangler Foundation and the Bank of America Charitable Foundation pledged $10 million each.
Other pledges included: the Duke Energy Foundation ($5million), Wells Fargo Foundation ($2.5 million), the Foundation for the Carolinas ($2 million) and the Belk Foundation ($1 million).
"Every year, students here in our own hometown are dropping out at alarming rates," said Charles Bowman, Charlotte market president for Bank of America. "We cannot wait any longer to tackle this."
Leon Levine, founder of Matthews-based Family Dollar Stores, said Project LIFT has secured $40.5 million in pledges. It needs additional donors to contribute the remaining $14.5 million by June.
"We have more work to do," he said. "This is urgent."
The idea sprouted last summer as the Levine and Spangler families, long noted for their philanthropy, talked about how they might have a more powerful impact on education in Charlotte.
Officials behind the effort call themselves the CMS Investment Study Group. They spent months analyzing the school system's needs, as well as talking to hundreds of students and community leaders.
They approached school officials and reached out to other donors. Many said the level of cooperation between corporate and family foundations is unprecedented for Charlotte.
The study group unveils its effort against a backdrop of racial tensions and upheaval sparked by CMS' recent move to close 10 schools and create new pre-K-8 campuses.
CMS officials say they made the changes to help close a $100 million budget gap, but westside residents say their schools have taken a disproportionately large share of the budget cuts. Many parents have accused school board members of racial bias.
Mayor Anthony Foxx - a West Charlotte graduate, like Anna Spangler Nelson - said regardless of poverty levels or skin color, students have the same dreams as he did. The foundations' effort shows "that the collective will of the community to see our children succeed overpowers anything that can undermine them," he said.
CMS Superintendent Peter Gorman added: "We are very grateful. We're in need right now. We need support."
Project LIFT will hire a coordinator who will work for CMS but be paid with private money. Some aid to CMS will start flowing in 2011-12, with the full program beginning in 2012-13.
The study group's leaders stressed that the new money is not meant to replace CMS's shrinking budget dollars, but rather to help finance reform efforts.
Along with West Charlotte High, the targeted schools include: Ranson Middle, Statesville Road Elementary, Allenbrook Elementary and the new pre-K-8 campuses Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is creating at Thomasboro, Druid Hills, Byers and Bruns Avenue elementaries.
Statistics presented during the ceremony showed pass rates for state reading tests in some of the schools fell as low as 24 percent (at Thomasboro).
Officials said the schools will need more flexibility to attack the problem, including freedom from state rules restricting when school years start and end. They said they will lobby state lawmakers for it.
Foxx pledged to join such efforts, and to call on city council members to join him. Gorman welcomed the help, noting that the project's emphasis on teacher effectiveness and increasing instructional time fits in with what CMS is already doing.
West Charlotte junior Raeven Henry listened to the speeches and promises. When she first heard of the effort, she said she wondered if all these people, with their money and good intentions, might be gone in a year or two.
But as the donations kept piling up, her optimism grew."After being here today, I believe that these people are dedicated. I'm surprised, and I'm really confident that they will be here awhile, and that this is going to change things at this school."