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Project LIFT's Denise Watts Talks Lessons Learned, As Effort To Improve Schools Evolves

Project LIFT Superintendent Denise Watts speaks with WFAE's Marshall Terry.
Lisa Worf
Project LIFT Superintendent Denise Watts speaks with WFAE's Marshall Terry.

This school year marks the sixth year for CMS’s Project LIFT. A total of $55 million dollars in private donations have gone into the effort to turnaround ten schools on the city’s west side. The money came with the expectation that within five years graduation rates at West Charlotte High School would reach 90 percent and 90 percent of students would be proficient. West Charlotte’s graduation rates are close to that, but test scores remain far below expectations. 

Denise Watts oversees the Project LIFT schools. Next year, she’ll oversee an additional 19 schools, as part of district-wide changes.  She joined us to talk about lessons learned over the past six years and the future of Project LIFT.   

Q:  How would you judge the outcome of Project LIFT so far?

A:  Obviously when we started we had a very steep hill to climb. And over the course of six years, I think we've made progress up that hill.  So we've set conditions in place that allow for the student achievement. We've been able to hire better teachers. The culture at the school is much stronger. We have a strong principal.  We've put some other strategies in place, and so we're at a place now where I believe the test scores are going to be a lagging indicator. I mean obviously we haven't achieved the desired outcomes. So I wouldn't say I'm satisfied, but the progress has been moving in a way that I like.

Q:  Tell me what has worked.

A:  Sure. So I would think our talent strategy has been one of the most successful strategies that we've focused on in Project LIFT.  Starting 6 years ago, these schools were designated by the school board as hard-to-staff schools.  And what we've been able to do is totally flip that perception and now we're actually a hotbed for talent.  We're a place where people want to come, they come, and they're successful. They've moved on for promotions and other things. So being able to bring in a highly-effective motivated and mission-aligned teachers is something that we've been extremely successful with and I'm pretty excited about that. Those lessons learned in many ways have been replicated in areas of the district already beyond.

Q:  Are there things that have been done that you think didn't work?

A:  Oh absolutely. And the beautiful thing about that is that was expected. I think one of the things that was shared with me when I was hired was all of this is not going to work. This is about learning along the way. So I think one of the lessons learned for me is that when we launched LIFT we tried to do too many things at one time. And so just the juggling of execution and implementation it negatively impacted fidelity. And so maybe we did abandon some strategies too soon, but I had to get things in a place where I could see progress.  So I can't necessarily point to one specific strategy, but I can say that maybe we made some moves early in the process that didn't necessarily pan out the way we wanted.

Q:  What lessons that you've learned from Project LIFT will you bring with you to this new learning community that's going to have three times the number of schools?

A:  So slow down to speed up. It would be one valuable lesson learned like five years was ambitious. I think now going into a year seven and eight we know more. And the example that I'll give you is last year we added one additional school, Oakdale. So it's only been a lift school for one year.  We have been able to go into that school and implement many of the things that it took the other nine schools five years to get up and running. We were able to do that in about six months. Why? Because we know the steps that need to be taken. We know the right levers to pull. We know the timeline for when to pull those levers. And so I feel that moving LIFT forward and extending and expanding it will be a lot more efficient just because we've had the experience.

Q:  How do you replicate those lessons on a budget? You don't have as much money to work with.

A:  So luckily that was a question that has been top of mind since the launch of LIFT. And so while we have been implementing top of mind for me in the implementation process is how do we sustain this once the funding is gone? And so along the way in the original schools we began to look at other funding streams such as Title I funding. And so what our principals have been able to do over the course of five years is to use existing resources to begin to take the place of LIFT money. So if you look at our budget over the last five years we started off the first year with a $12 million budget. Now we're down to like a $4 million budget. And so what we would be looking to do is we look to replicate and extend Project LIFT into other schools, is to look at existing funding streams and make choices and tradeoffs around what is it that we're trying to accomplish and how can a principal use existing funding streams to do that?

Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.