Too often, newly hired superintendents are expected to come in with a bold game plan in mind and to immediately hit the ground running. But Denise Watts, the newly hired superintendent at Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools, whose instinct is to do just that, is forcing herself to take her time to learn directly from her community what issues and topics need to be addressed by the administration this school year and beyond. In her eyes, the future success of the district isn’t dependent on her vision, but her flock’s.
In this Q&A, District Administration’s Micah Ward sits down with Watts to learn more about her 100-day plan, how she’s prioritizing her community’s voice and what she hopes to achieve through her leadership this school year.
Note: The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Ward: Why don’t you take me back to the beginnings of your career? What got you into educational leadership?
Watts: I had an amazing third-grade teacher, Mrs. Hall, and I think around that time in my life I decided I wanted to be a teacher. And if you ask my mom, from third grade all the way up to a senior in high school, that pretty much that desire to want to be a teacher never changed.
So obviously, moving out of high school into college, I pursued an education career. I was a teacher for four years and an assistant principal for two years and then moved into a principalship.
At that point in time, I was one of the youngest principals in the state of North Carolina. I think I was around 28 or 29 when I became a principal of a very large middle school in Charlotte, North Carolina, and was there for about six years as the principal. I got a phone call from the superintendent in 2008 who called me to his office. And of course, when you get a call from the superintendent, you don’t know what you’re going to the office for.
So I showed up at that particular time, and he asked me to be the principal at the lowest-performing middle school in the state of North Carolina, which at the time, I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into. But I can tell you, walking into the doors of that school, I knew that’s where my heart and passion was.
Like many of the kids in this school, mostly black and brown kids, high-poverty school school students had been underserved. In many ways, those students emulated my own life and upbringing and childhood and I knew I had an opportunity to pay it forward. The power of education and its way of being able to change people’s life trajectories was very important to me and so was there for a couple of years and then got another call from the superintendent, who then asked me to go into a district role. So I did that.
I was over 20 Title I middle and high schools, then I got another phone call in a year and was asked to lead an initiative called “Project Lift.” It was an initiative that basically focused on nine of the lowest-performing schools in Charlotte. It was philanthropically funded to the tune of about $55 million and I had a dual role. I reported to an external board and also internally and basically kept that going for five to seven years, left the district of Charlotte Mecklenburg in 2019, went to Houston ISD for a couple of years and decided in April of this year that we’re sitting in right now that I had served in several roles and had been a part of a lot of transformation initiatives.
And basically at this point in my career I’ve amassed the experiences, both good, bad and ugly, to pursue a superintendency. And I think the language that I used to tell people this story is that it was time to bet on me, right? It’s time for me to bet on me as a superintendent. And if I messed it up, then I only had me to blame. So I applied for two superintendencies. I landed in the Savannah-Chatham Public School system, which is exactly where I should be. And I’m glad I landed here and I’ve been in the job now for a little less than three months.
Ward: Your “Community Conversations” initiative, I understand that is part of your 100-day plan. Could you walk us through it?
Watts: There are many strengths that Savannah Chatham Public School has. I really wanted to discipline myself around making sure I did not misuse the eagerness for people to change and want a better future.
I think a lot of times leaders coming into situations could take that kind of energy and immediately start doing things, “Let’s change this, let’s change that.” So the 100-day plan was really a way for me to discipline myself to say you’re not going to come in and take advantage of the change that people want to see. You’re going to go slow so that you can go fast and as a part of that, you’re going to take every day of the 100 days to listen and learn, and that listening and learning, it’s a package.
So you’re hearing about the community conversations, that’s just one piece. There are already principal focus groups, teacher focus groups, student focus groups, audits and reviews of certain departments, and one-on-one conversations. I have an inventory of all the partners and organizational meetings that I have been invited to, and essentially when I go to those, the sentiment is sometimes that folks are disappointed, right? Because people want me to come to these things and they want me to tell them my vision. And I say to them, “I’m not here to tell you my vision because I can’t have a vision until I collect all of this information.”
And so looking at all of those different opportunities, at the end of 100 days, I will sort through all of this information and basically look for trends and patterns that will illuminate for us a path forward. I will try to take all the information that I learned, what bubbles up, what resonates across different groups, and different individuals, and ask, “What are the things and patterns?” And then we’ll revise our strategic plan to make sure it includes those things. And at that point in time, hopefully, we’ll have more of a shared vision of what the future can be.
Ward: Is there anything you’re hoping to learn about the community that you don’t already know yet?
Watts: I mean, obviously I’m a little over halfway through my 100 days, maybe somewhere around day 60. There are already themes and patterns that are emerging, right? So in some ways, I’m looking to affirm some things that are kind of already bubbling up. But, what else is new? What ideas do people have? What solutions?
The other thing I think that’s important to know about my entry into the district is I’ve kind of adopted this “together we can” hashtag or theme for the district because I don’t want to be the sole solution maker. I do not want to put myself in a position where everyone is looking to me to make the change.
It will have to be a collective opportunity, and so what I’m hoping to gain from the listen-and-learn conversations are maybe some potential solutions that have not emerged yet; ideas that people have that could actually begin to solve some of our district’s most challenging problems. I lead from a very asset-based philosophy. I believe the answers are in the room. I don’t believe you can lay a plan from another district on top of a district that you’ve never been in before. The people here are the district’s best asset and so together we can move to a preferred future.
It’s not about Denise Watts, the superintendent, and I never want it to be about me because how well the students do in Savannah Chatham Public School should not be dependent on a leader.
Ward: The last of these meetings will be held on Nov. 6, which falls closely to the end of your 100-day plan. So what happens next? What should the district expect from you?
Watts: So at that point, not only will it be the end of the community conversations, but a lot of the audits I’ve commissioned should be coming to a close, while the focus group should be coming to a close. All the things that I’ve done to collect data should be ending around the end of October, the beginning of November.
So at that point in time, what we would be doing with cabinet is reviewing all of the data, my listen-and-learn data audits, all the reviews, and looking for those trends and patterns and what emerged from that. And then we go back to our strategic plan and we say what’s missing, I’m not rewriting or redoing a whole strategic plan.
Then there will be another series of community conversations because what I want to do is put up in front of people, “This is what I hear. This is what you told me. Did I get this right? Did I interpret all this information wrong?”
Ward: Looking ahead to the rest of the school year, what are you most excited about?
Watts: Oh gosh, every day is an opportunity for excitement. But I guess I am excited to get to the action orientation of this. I used the phrase when we got on the phone that the 100-day plan was a way to discipline myself. I like to get in there and start working and, again, having to discipline myself and go through all this data collection, this listen and learn it.
And so I think I’ll be excited to be able to put my foot on the gas pedal. The infrastructure will be in place. The plan will be in place. Everyone will understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. And the action orientation is the piece that I’m most excited about because that’s what impacts kids.
When we start, when we get going on the work and the execution, what we should see is an impact on student achievement, impact on students, college and career readiness, and impact on how our kids perform both now and in the future. And so the go part, the green light, is probably what I’m most excited about because I know that’s when we will start making the impact that we all want to have.