Dr. Denise Watts speaks to media at Woodville-Tompkins on June 26, 2024

Dr. Denise Watts reflects on personal growth in first year as SCCPSS Superintendent

"There have been moments of exhilaration and there have been moments of sadness."

After one year on the job, Savannah-Chatham County Public School System Superintendent Dr. Denise Watts took time on Wednesday, June 26 to reflect on lessons learned, personal growth, and more. Her comments came during a press conference held at Woodville-Tompkins and organized by SCCPSS communications.

“It's been an exciting year. I continue to be honored and extremely privileged to serve as the 25th Superintendent of the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System,” said Watts in her opening statement. “Almost a year ago, I stood in a boardroom before the ink was dry on my contract. I said that I was uniquely prepared and ready to serve as a catalyst for change. And today, I'm even more convinced of this.”

“I'm very thankful to the Board of Education for providing the support and guidance to do my job. I'm confident that we will continue this work to reach our joint aspirations and inevitable success in the district. I've also had the opportunity to work with a world class staff. I have met and observed employees across every employee group. The blood, sweat, and tears are real. Their dedication is unmatched.”
Last week, Watts and the Board of Education passed a budget for the next fiscal year. It was her first experience (primarily) overseeing the adoption of a budget. There have been other firsts in her tenure so far as well. A long range facilities plan (LRFP) was put together and implemented. Rezoning of school districts was done in order to address overcrowding at some schools, and underuse at others. Some schools (Largo-Tibet Elementary) have closed, while new ones, like the multi-campus complex at the site of the old Groves High School, have opened.

“Being able to have the Davis-Edwards-Harris Educational Complex open under my leadership is something that I'm very proud of,” Watts said.

She also addressed transportation of students as a priority, as well as literacy and teacher retention. The school district, under Watts, has already approved raises for district staff members to include teachers. SCCPSS partnered with Chatham Area Transit (CAT) this year for a trial program where students ride for free. It was an effort to increase attendance numbers in Savannah’s public schools and it could continue next school year.
click to enlarge Dr. Denise Watts reflects on personal growth in first year as SCCPSS Superintendent
Dr. Denise Watts speaks to media at Woodville-Tompkins on June 26, 2024
“I've learned many lessons as a first-year superintendent,” she said. “I have learned to understand the diverse needs of a community. Yes, we are all a part of Savannah-Chatham County schools, but needs on one side of town may differ greatly from the needs on the other side of town. And so really understanding those needs and tailoring our approaches to address them is important.”
Prioritizing teachers and their needs was an immediate goal for Watts.

“Teacher burnout was one of the things that I heard loud and clear when I got here. Teacher burnout is real,” she said. “It's real not only here, but it is real all across the nation. To be able to have some immediate solutions to resolving teacher burnout that included the voices of our teachers has been very productive work.”
click to enlarge Dr. Denise Watts reflects on personal growth in first year as SCCPSS Superintendent
Dr. Denise Watts

Sometimes the opportunities to hear from teachers can come in the most unexpected of places.

“When I go out to eat on the weekends, or when I’m in an Uber, 70 percent of the time I am encountering a teacher that is working a second job to sustain or supplement their income,” Watts said. “And that saddens me a great deal. I really use it as an opportunity to learn and ask questions and to gain insight and perspective. I don't use it as an opportunity to share much. It really is just a continued learning opportunity for me.”

“Those teachers are the same ones standing in classrooms the next morning in front of our students. So, the cost of living adjustment provided by the Governor—and we are supplementing that in our district—is just a small signal that we have to reform teacher compensation.”

Watts came to Savannah after serving as the Chief of Schools for Houston’s Independent School District. That district included more than 194,000 students across 274 schools. While there, she supervised principals, managed magnet schools and led innovation and strategy efforts for the district. It was a big undertaking, but it was more of a background role.

Now, she says her job has put her squarely in the spotlight.
“An important part of my learning has been this idea that, in previous roles, I've been more of the ‘worker bee.’ I've been the person behind the scenes doing the work and able to push the superintendent out to the forefront as I am here today,” she said. “But now that role has shifted for me. I am the person out front and there are people working all behind me. So, just getting used to the fact that I'm standing here before you all—it may seem easy, but it is not because that's not who I naturally am. I like being in the work. But I also understand the importance of communication and engagement and being a face for the community.”

The community has certainly noticed.

“I was just in Kroger on Saturday with my ball cap on doing grocery shopping and this little boy comes up to me and he's like, ‘are you our superintendent?’ Just getting used to some people recognizing me when I am out just being a mom or wife has been something that I've learned this year and something that I'm willing to accept. I'm on the clock 24/7, if I want to be or not, and that's just part of the job.”


Travis Jaudon

Travis Jaudon is a reporter for Connect Savannah. He is a Savannah native and has been writing in Savannah since 2016. Reach him with feedback or story tips at 912-721-4358
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