When Wesley Watts became the principal of Zachary High School four years ago, he tried remembering what it was like to be a teacher as he made his day-to-day administrative decisions.
Now, as he prepares to step into his new role as the superintendent of West Baton Rouge Parish Schools, the former high school basketball coach says he intends to use that same philosophy to lead an entire school district.
“I’m going to try to operate as the superintendent remembering what it’s like to be a principal,” Watts said in an interview Friday, two days after the School Board named him superintendent. “My philosophy is to empower people to do their jobs. I want to be there to support and guide them, too.”
Watts, 45, is a Central native who holds degrees from the University of Southern Mississippi and McNeese State University.
Scott Devillier, superintendent of Zachary Community Schools, called him a positive and very energetic leader and said West Baton Rouge Parish Schools is lucky to have him.
“We’ve been working together for the last five years,” Devillier said. “I think he has been watching me grow, and he has that same ambition. He’s going to try to look at bringing new ideas to the school system.”
Watts is walking into a school system that has been on a growth track for success for the past 10 years under the leadership of current Superintendent David Corona.
Corona announced last fall he was retiring from West Baton Rouge Parish Schools at the end of July, prompting the search for his replacement.
Corona and Watts are scheduled to sit down together on Tuesday to begin ironing out the details of his migration into the West Baton Rouge Parish school system.
Corona intends to let Watts dive right into some of the impending actions heading into the new school year this fall.
“We have some principal openings we’re going to work on together,” Corona said. “I want his input because he has to live with the decisions we make.”
During Corona’s tenure, the school district as a whole went from a D grade by the Louisiana Department of Education to a B in 2012, according to the Department of Education’s annual district performance reports.
The district was able to maintain its B average — or 86.5 performance score — in the Department of Education’s 2013 report, after the state adopted a new 150-point scoring scale.
However, the school district, which has a student population of 3,900 attending its 10 schools, is struggling to increase its high school graduation rate.
The state’s most recent graduation data for West Baton Rouge Parish shows only 63.7 percent of its students complete high school within four years, according to a 2012 report.
Corona said he thinks Watts was a good choice by the School Board to lead the system forward. He said he’s confident passing the baton along to his successor.
“He’s young but still has 25 years of experience,” Corona said. “He’s going to do fine. Watts is a smart guy. I’m just proud of the progress we’ve made, but there’s more to be made.”
Zachary High saw its school performance score from the state jump from 118.3 in 2010 to 149.9 in 2012.
In his interview with the School Board, Watts touted a schoolwide reading program that helped boost students’ ACT scores and a student-driven leadership group in 2009 called Teen Influence Motivating Others.
Watts still has to work out details of his contract, which the School Board hopes to approve at its next regular meeting July 16. The district pays Corona $151,000 annually.
Watts said one of his first orders of business is to take a closer look at the district’s graduation rates and ACT scores and begin developing strategies for school improvement.
He said West Baton Rouge Parish has all the ingredients to be an A school district, like Zachary.
“I have some thoughts; I can’t be specific right now until I get in there and see what they’re doing,” Watts said. “I think a lot of educators are working under what I call the ‘law of intuitive fatigue,’ meaning, everyone keeps coming up with these great ideas constantly, but you get worn out with too many ideas. You can’t do everything. We need everyone to stop for a second and say, ‘why don’t we take something we’re doing now and improve it instead of changing it again.’ It seems like we’re always changing.”
Watts calls his fear of failure the driving force behind his ambition to succeed in his new challenge.
“I truly believe this is what God called me to do,” he said. “I don’t make decisions just to improve a score. I want to work toward improving the students. We do that, the scores will improve themselves.”
Follow Terry Jones on Twitter @tjonesreporter.