Denise Watts has a story that needs to be heard. Her past, present and undoubtedly her future serve as a clear example of the vital role that public education plays in the future of North Carolina.
Forget Superwoman; as a teacher-turned-vice-principal-turned-principal, Watts revamped the lowest-performing school in our state in only one year. In fact, Mint Hill Middle School became a nationally designated School to Watch after one year of her leadership. Watts was rightfully named North Carolina Principal of the Year in 2008.
In the past few years, Watts has taken her leadership to a new initiative, serving as the community superintendent of Project L.I.F.T. Project L.I.F.T. (Leadership & Investment for Transformation) partners the public and private sectors to provide a strong educational foundation to student demographics that traditionally perform poorly in school. The nonprofit currently serves nine schools in Charlotte –Mecklenburg County.
Watts attributes her success to one thing: education. “Statistically I should not be where I am today and statistically, my story should have been very different,” says Watts. She was raised by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet: “There were times when we came home from school and we didn’t have lights.” As a recipient of a full scholarship from Elizabeth City State University, Watts considers her opportunity to receive an education the factor that differentiates her from other people in her family and community who couldn’t escape the cycle of poverty.
Watts uses education to better the lives of at-risk kids because education so dramatically improved her own life. “The conditions that I’m able to create in a school could mean, quite frankly, for some kids, the difference between life and death or jail and freedom. Those are the things that are real. The schoolhouse has the potential to make that much of a difference in a kid’s life,” explains Watts.
When asked what issue women across North Carolina should be concerned about with regards to education, Watts advises: “Women who are mothers have to stay attuned to the influential end — beyond their children and beyond their school. Women need to stay in the game and influence decisions.”
Watts encourages women to act beyond their own child’s classroom and to strive to make their voices heard to school boards and policymakers. She maintains that education is the factor that will determine our state’s future and needs to be addressed as the influential determinate that it is.