Incoming superintendent calls on business leaders to support Lawrence schools in quest for ‘flagship’ status

photo by: Joanna Hlavacek

Incoming Lawrence Public Schools superintendent Anthony Lewis speaks to a gathering of business and community leaders on Tuesday, April 10 at Lawrence's Arterra Art Gallery, 2161 Quail Creek Drive. The luncheon and meet-and-greet was hosted by The Chamber, Lawrence's chamber of commerce.

Incoming superintendent Anthony Lewis believes Lawrence Public Schools have the potential to become the state’s “flagship school district.” On Tuesday, he called on Lawrence business leaders to help him turn that vision into a reality.

Lewis, now an assistant superintendent in the Kansas City, Mo., district, shared stories from his career and goals for his new position during a meet-and-greet Tuesday hosted by Lawrence’s chamber of commerce.

Originally from Talladega, Ala., Lewis began his career in public education 16 years ago as a special education teacher and, later, as an assistant principal and head principal, in Montgomery, Ala. There, he worked to transform the struggling E.D. Nixon Elementary School into one of the top schools in Alabama.

This all happened three years after the state had sent notice that it was planning to take over the school due to poor performance, Lewis said.

“Many people ask me, ‘Well, what did it take to get that school from the bottom of the list in the state to number 18 out of 706 schools in the state?’ It took our teachers really, truly understanding the students that we were serving,” Lewis recalled Tuesday at Lawrence’s Arterra Event Gallery.

“And that’s no different in the work we do in Kansas City, and that should be no different from the work any educator does in any school district,” he said.

Under his leadership, E.D. Nixon became what’s known as a 90/90/90 school, meaning 90 percent of students were scoring in the top 10 percent of state and national assessments despite 90 percent of students belonging to ethnic minorities and 90 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced lunches.

Essentially, E.D. Nixon had beaten the odds. It was that rare high-poverty, high-performing school that idealistic educators strive for, and it’s what spurred Kansas City’s district leaders to recruit Lewis in 2011.

Lewis credits the E.D. Nixon turnaround to the teachers who worked with him to develop culturally relevant lessons and raise expectations for kids others might have written off. The Kansas City, Mo., district presented a similar challenge — the district went from being unaccredited to eventually earning full accreditation, all within four years of Lewis’ arrival.

(Although the district missed the mark on full accreditation last fall, it did hit full accreditation level in 2016, the first time it had done so in 30 years.)

“It was challenging people’s perceptions, challenging people’s beliefs about what our amazing kids can do,” Lewis said of the 2016 achievement. “And guess what? The kids were no different from the kids in Alabama.”

Kansas City students needed a variety of support services, he said, but “most importantly, they needed an adult advocate that truly believed in them.”

The district’s progress in recent years has attracted admirers and visitors from across the state and region. People want to learn from Kansas City, Mo. public schools, Lewis said. He envisions similar results in Lawrence, which he feels already has “a lot” to be proud of.

“One in particular is our ACT scores exceed the state and national averages,” Lewis told the crowd. “Did you guys know that? So, that’s a true testament to the quality of educators that we do have in Lawrence.”

But Lewis also called on the community to imagine what Lawrence schools could do differently. Though he won’t officially start the superintendent job until July, Lewis said his work began months ago, at least informally. He plans to continue engaging the community over the next several weeks, eventually putting together a three- or five-year strategic plan with input from local partners.

“I met some amazing people in this room today,” Lewis said. “I had one person come up to me and tell me that Lawrence Public Schools used to be the best school district in Kansas. So why is it not, then? That’s on us to find out, and that’s for us to get Lawrence schools back to the best school district in Kansas.”

After all, he later added, “schools can’t do it alone.”

When he moves into his new role July 1, Lewis will become the ninth superintendent to lead Lawrence’s school district. He replaces current interim superintendent Anna Stubblefield, who has served in that role since summer 2017.