“You said we failed….but you never visited my school…..”
Growing up as little black girl in Columbus, Ohio, I attended predominantly black public schools. I remember hearing negative messages about my school. They called my school ghetto. They said the kids at the other school were smarter. They doubted we would go to college. They said our future was failure.
I went on to graduate from The Ohio State University, and moved to Charlotte, North Carolina to become a teacher. I went on to become an Instructional Coach, Assistant Principal at Ranson IB, obtain my Masters, and now, I am in my third year of serving as the proud Principal of Ranson IB Middle School. Ranson IB is one of ten Project L.I.F.T. Schools, which includes West Charlotte High School and its nine feeder schools. Project L.I.F.T. began five years ago when the graduation rate of West Charlotte High School was 54%, the lowest in the district. The initiative was birthed from a unique public-private partnership between Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Charlotte’s philanthropic community. The goal of Project LIFT is to provide additional support and resources to change the way traditionally under-served students are educated, supported, and empowered to realize their full potential.
Project L.I.F.T. is going into year six and naturally there has been much conversation on what has been accomplished. The common headline has been “failure”. The word “failure” did not sit well with me as a public school student in Columbus, Ohio, and it does not sit well with me now as a principal.
I’ve failed at making my grandmother’s sweet potato pie. I’ve failed at killing a spider. I’ve failed at singing Beyonce’s “Love on Top” on key. I’ve failed at going out past 10pm on a Friday night without a nap. I’ve failed at convincing my mama that I am grown.
Failure gives zero notion of success. It says there is no progress to acknowledge. It says if there was any impact, it was negative. If failure had a smell, it would be funky foul. If failure had a taste, it would make you gag. If failure was a song, it would make you cry, drink, and drunk text that ex you blocked and changed their name in your phone to “Don’t text me”.
My school does not make me want to gag, it doesn’t smell funky foul, and if my school were a song, I would replay it all day. So I have a big problem with failure being the primary adjective used to describe my school and the nine others in Project L.I.F.T. It undermines 5+ years of blood, sweat, and tears of hundreds of educators. It perpetuates a dangerous bias about the communities we serve (that they can’t achieve). It nullifies the courageous leadership of Charlotte philanthropists who did what others weren’t willing to do. It fuels our scholars’ doubt that we work hard every day to tear down, and it’s simply not true.
What is most perplexing about the use of this word is that I have consistently heard it from writers, reporters, community members, and elected officials who have never visited my school. They have never had lunch with my scholars, served as a reading buddy or classroom speaker, donated a uniform or supplies, introduced a new community partner, or sent me an email asking how everything is going and how they can help. And for the record, showing up to a school unannounced looking for what’s wrong doesn’t count as a visit in my book. That’s a pop-up. Pop-ups are self-serving and not in the best interest of kids.
Oppression taught me as a little black girl that I had to work twice as hard to receive half the recognition. You must work twice as hard….once to meet expectations, and twice to exceed expectations, therefore invalidating any bias associated with your identity or community that says you can’t or that you achieved by chance. As a school leader of color serving predominately black and brown children in a city that is ranked 50 out of 50 for social mobility, my scholars and I have to work twice as hard to break through the bias of Charlotte and its media. It shouldn’t be this way, but the perpetuated narrative of failure about my school and the nine others affirms what oppression taught me.
I will no longer allow the biased narrative of critical bystanders to define me, my scholars, my school, or Project L.I.F.T. So let me tell you why we are not a failure….
Because of Project L.I.F.T. we have been able to overhaul our Language Arts curriculum. Project L.I.F.T. provided us with a curriculum to ensure that all scholars have access to on grade level text, and meaningful literacy tasks in the midst of Common Core expectations. For the past three years, Ranson IB has met and exceeded growth in Language Arts at every grade level and has been ranked #2 in the district the past two years for our growth in 6–8 Language Arts. Our scholars are becoming better readers because of Project L.I.F.T.
It is hard to find great teachers. It is even harder finding great teachers who have been successful in Title 1 schools AND retaining them. Rather than year after year becoming a hamster spinning on a wheel trying to find great teachers during a teacher pipeline shortage, Project L.I.F.T. decided to innovate. We already had AMAZING teachers in our buildings whose impact was limited to just their classroom. Five years ago, Project L.I.F.T. was one of the first in the nation to partner with an organization called Public Impact to redesign school and create new teacher roles. These new teacher roles allowed us to expand the impact of great teachers, while paying them more.
The role Ranson IB chose was a Multi-Classroom Leader (MCL). MCLs at Ranson IB oversee a content area and three to four teachers. In their role they: 1.) create all the lesson plans for their content area, ensuring all scholars have access to high quality instruction every day, 2.) provide instructional coaching to the three to four teachers they oversee, allowing our teachers to get better faster through weekly feedback, and 3.) provide interventions to struggling students through small group instruction, allowing every scholar the opportunity to meet mastery. All of our MCLs were rockstar teachers in Title 1 schools. Because of Project L.I.F.T., great teachers at Ranson IB grew their impact from just a classroom, to an entire grade level or the whole school as an MCL, while also growing their pay. Project L.I.F.T.’s innovation has led to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools adopting the MCL position across the district and making this opportunity available to all schools.
Because of Project L.I.F.T. we all have deeper relationships with our feeder schools. So many times our scholars experience additional challenges because they change schools and experience a break in support and/or services. This forces our scholars to start over. The community built amongst the schools in Project L.I.F.T. allows for instructional and emotional consistency for our scholars. Scholars move between Project L.I.F.T. schools. We text and email each other to share strategies that worked. All Project L.I.F.T. schools use the same classroom management framework. Our ELA and Math curriculum is also the same across all elementary and middle grades. Consistency is critical for our scholars. Project L.I.F.T. allows us to be consistent.
All of our scholars attend West Charlotte High School. Each year, it is a tradition amongst the Project L.I.F.T. Principals to attend West Charlotte’s graduation ceremony together. Graduation is a visual reminder of what we are all working towards. It reminds us why we get out of bed every day and that we do this work together. To see the glowing faces walk across the stage and collectively recall their middle school and elementary stories only happens in Project L.I.F.T.
Don’t fall into the trap of perpetuating the easy, false, and biased narrative about our schools and communities. Since the start of Project L.I.F.T., Ranson IB’s suspension rate has decreased by 26%. Two years ago we phased out Truancy Court because our attendance data no longer depicted a need. Last year, for the first time we offered additional online high school credit options and 100% of our scholars enrolled passed their North Carolina Final Exam. Our scholars have been to Hawaii, the Dominican Republic, and France. We have an amazing partnership with Johnson C. Smith University that provides our schools with a Saturday STEM Academy. All these things are just the tip of the iceberg of greatness happening in Project L.I.F.T. schools. We are not failing.
West Charlotte’s graduation rate is now, 88.1% and they exceeded the state’s growth expectations. They are no longer labeled as a low performing school for the first time in YEARS. How in the world can you consider this to be failure?
So let me be clear. My key point isn’t to not hold us accountable. Our kids are too important for you not to..…so yes, look at our data! But don’t look at it from the sidelines and give us labels. Ask us questions, learn what’s working, and be a critical friend to support us in the areas where we need help.
Do we have it all figured out? Absolutely not. Are we satisfied with our current proficiency? Absolutely not. Are we the same schools that we were five years ago? Absolutely not.
If you would have visited our schools you would see that we are not failing….we are actually flying.