Richard ‘Stick’ Williams
Location: Charlotte, N.C.
In 2012, barely half the seniors at West Charlotte High School in Charlotte, N.C., graduated. For Stick Williams, a VP at Duke Energy (No. 116) who grew up in public housing in Greensboro, that was unacceptable. He spearheaded the creation of Project LIFT, a $55 million private-public partnership aimed at improving the performance of public schools in the district. One goal: Increasing the graduation rate at the troubled high school to 90 percent.
Project LIFT is similar to New York’s pioneering Harlem Children’s Zone in that it provides wraparound services like dental clinics and free Internet to the largely disadvantaged local population. But unlike other school turnaround programs, it doesn’t revolve around charter schools. “We knew we could reach far more students if we did this in public schools,” Williams says. “We wanted to see public schools work.”
Project LIFT has recruited teachers from across the country to reinvigorate the West Charlotte schools. It also founded LIFT Academy, a school designed for students that have dropped out school or fallen far behind. At LIFT Academy, students can make up missed credits at their own pace, getting them back on track to graduate. So far, the program seems to be working: in 2014, the graduation rate at West Charlotte High School was 78%. For Williams, the success of LIFT Academy is personal. “When I go to these schools, I look at these students, and I’m looking at Stick Williams,” he tells Fortune. “I was very fortunate that a lot of folks had their fingerprints on me. If we don’t have people putting their fingerprints on these students, they might not have the opportunities I had.”