Denise Watts, Project LIFT, and Charlotte's Big Test

Denise Watts is leading an ambitious—and risky—public education experiment on the city’s west side


Pre-K students at Thomasboro Academy work on counting with paper scoops of ice cream.

Photographs by Logan Cyrus

(page 1 of 3)

On the eve of her 38th birthday, Denise Watts, with close-cropped dark hair and wearing a charcoal tweed blazer and black slacks, stands at a rickety wooden podium in the multipurpose room of Druid Hills Academy. The public school off Graham Street three miles from uptown serves students in pre-K through eighth grade. It’s located behind a gas station and beside a junkyard with rusty cars and a disintegrating old tractor. This room doubles as a gymnasium; simple basketball goals stand on either end of the laminate floor. The wooden backboards have been hand painted.

Nine school board members, Super­­­­intendent Heath Morrison, and the board’s attorney sit in metal chairs behind three tables draped in black cloth, listening carefully to Watts. She’s making the case for a year-round calendar at four struggling schools on this side of town. “We hope the difference is positive,” she says from the lectern. “That’s the whole goal.”

It would be a dramatic shift for CMS: stretching the school year, shortening breaks, and adding instructional days. Watts had to convince a skeptical state legislature to allow a calendar change before she could even discuss the idea with the school board. Philanthropists will cover the $2.3 million cost of the changes.

The extended calendars at Druid Hills, Thomasboro Academy, Bruns Academy, and Walter G. Byers School are the first major test for Watts and the program she leads, Project LIFT. By adding time to the school year, teachers hope to reduce the amount of knowledge students lose during the long summer break—a documented phenomenon that disproportionately affects poor students.

Watts knows the proposal is controversial. It affects summer camps, day-care plans, and teacher pay. It upsets the status quo. Unlike many people who speak at lecterns like this one, Watts doesn’t gloss over the criticism. She walks board members through a list of pros and cons. There are a lot of cons. “I didn’t try to sell this as, ‘It’s going to be all positive and it’s gonna be a win-win,’” she says to board members. Her voice sounds like a teacher’s, firm but caring.

None of the school board members seem surprised by Watts’s candor. They heap praise on her. And then they deliver her first major victory, voting unanimously to shuffle the calendars. In the audience, parents and teachers leap from their chairs and applaud.

Project LIFT—the acronym stands for Leadership and Investment for Transformation—is a $55 million public-private partnership designed to improve academic performance at West Charlotte High School and eight schools that feed into it. The money is all private, raised from local corporations, foundations, and individual supporters. The program grew out of the frustration and embarrassment of West Charlotte’s dismal graduation rate; just half of the students earned diplomas in 2010, the lowest percentage in the district. Until the mid-1990s, West Charlotte was one of the best high schools in the state.

Outside, in a white cinderblock corridor, a short woman with graying hair wraps Watts in a hug. It’s Dianne Williams, a longtime resident of the Thomasboro neighborhood. Decades after her own kids came through CMS, Williams adopted three more children. Eight-year-old Nydasia and 5-year-old Dashawn will be among the students adjusting to a year-round calendar at Thomasboro next school year. “I told Denise and her staff before this even started, if they didn’t do year-round schools, my children are going to be sitting on their doorstep waiting for an education during the summer months,” Williams says.

A group of teachers emerges from the school board meeting and breaks out into a chant, something they typically use to praise students. Tonight, they’re addressing Watts.

“You know you did a good job! So say you did a good job! You did a good job!”

Someone has to peek out of the meeting room and tell the crowd to hush.

Denise Watts is leading the most ambitious education experiment in Charlotte-Mecklenburg since desegregation. She has staked her professional reputation, tens of millions of philanthropic dollars, and the futures of 7,400 children on Project LIFT. She reports to the district’s deputy superintendent and to representatives from some of Charlotte’s biggest companies. She battles stereotypes about race, poverty, and the influence of private money in education. If her gamble pays off, LIFT will become a model for the rest of North Carolina and, Watts hopes, the country. If it fails, Watts could be out of a job.

She tucks her iPad under her arm, thanks the teachers for coming to the school board meeting, and barrels toward the parking lot.


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