Relationships key to building strong school system, Lawrence superintendent finalist tells community at meet-and-greet

Jayson Strickland introduces himself to Carladyne Knox Conyers during a meet and greet on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018 at Lawrence High School. Strickland is one of two final candidates for the Lawrence school district's superintendent position.

After attending meet-and-greets for both superintendent finalists, Lawrence mother and part-time paraprofessional Kim Barbee says she’s not sure whom she’d pick to lead the Lawrence school district.

She does know one thing for sure, however, after watching Anthony Lewis and Jayson Strickland interact with community members on back-to-back nights at Lawrence High School.

“I would not want to be a board member, because they’re both highly qualified,” Barbee said Wednesday night during a meet-and-greet session with Strickland, a deputy superintendent in the Kansas City, Kan., school district.

Barbee and her 17-year-old daughter, LHS junior Sanders Barbee, were among the dozens of parents, students, school staffers and community members to attend that evening’s event in the Lawrence High library. Both mother and daughter noted Strickland’s “calm” demeanor in comparison to the more “high-energy” style of Lewis, an assistant superintendent in the neighboring Kansas City, Mo., school district.

Jayson Strickland talks about his qualifications and philosophies on education during a meet and greet on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018 at Lawrence High School. Strickland is one of two final candidates for the Lawrence school district's superintendent position.

As for why he’d want to make the jump from Wyandotte County to Lawrence, Strickland said during his opening remarks to community members there are some fairly obvious reasons. For one, “Lawrence is a great school district,” Strickland said.

“I mean, you have high test scores, you have lots of amenities in the community,” said Strickland, 46, who said he’d been impressed when he drove around town.

The other reasons, he said, were a little less obvious — but just as important in attracting him to the Lawrence district.

“I suspect that because of the proximity of where I am, you all have done your homework on me. You’ve made some calls to people, trying to find out, ‘What’s he really like?’ Well, I’ve done my homework on you,” Strickland joked, getting some genuine laughs from the crowd. “I’ve made some calls to people, too, and they say very good things about this community and about this school district.”

Personal relationships, Strickland said, have been the foundation of his professional philosophy throughout his 24 years in education. Strickland, an alumnus of the Kansas City, Kan., schools he now oversees, was raised by educators, he said. After growing up watching his family run their preschool business, Strickland became an educator himself — working as a classroom teacher, assistant principal, head principal and, most recently, as an assistant superintendent.

Throughout his career, Strickland said, he’s helped supervise early childhood programs as well as special education, curriculum alignment and programs for teaching English as a second language, among other areas.

As an assistant superintendent in the Kansas City, Kan., school district, Strickland developed a greater understanding and appreciation for the secondary school setting, he said. Strickland told community members Wednesday night that he believed these varied experiences would serve the Lawrence district well.

If chosen for the superintendent position, Strickland said he would aim to “serve young people” first and foremost. Teachers play a “critical” role in that, he said.

“I believe the space between a teacher and student is the most important space in a school district. I believe the whole school district is in service to that space. We have to make sure that space is quality,” Strickland said. “I believe that space becomes quality when you build a foundation on good relationships.”

Making sure “teachers have what they need to be successful,” Strickland said, is the obligation of the district’s leader. That person-oriented approach appealed to Sabrina Long, a fifth-grade teacher at Schwegler Elementary School.

In her six years in the district, she’s already seen two superintendents come and go, not including current interim superintendent Anna Stubblefield. She’s ready for a leader who will focus on the needs of students and teachers rather than advocating for the newest gadgets and classroom technology trends, which she sees as flashy but not essential.

“I feel like all the other ones we’ve had so far have pushed (this narrative) about how we in Lawrence are ahead of the curve,” Long said of Lawrence’s recent superintendents. “I feel like we’re more worried about putting that out there — of ‘we did this first’ — rather than putting our kids first.”

Kristin Oswald, who teaches fourth grade at Schwegler, agreed. Oswald said she appreciated that Strickland seems “like he might actually follow through with it,” referring to his promise to prioritize students and teachers.

Both women said they’d like their next superintendent to focus more on elementary education, which Long described as the “foundation” of a high-quality school system.

“The district does a good job of asking for our feedback …. But I don’t feel like it’s really heard. The feedback we give isn’t always met,” Oswald agreed. “I’m really looking for someone who’s going to listen to elementary (staff) and really hear us.”

Strickland’s final interview with the Lawrence school board took place after his meet-and-greet Wednesday night. Lewis, the other finalist, had his final interview Tuesday. The board plans to announce its selection Monday.

As deputy superintendent in Kansas City, Kan., Strickland said he currently makes about $145,000, not including benefits. David Cunningham, the Lawrence district’s chief legal counsel and executive director of human resources, said the Lawrence superintendent position was advertised with a salary of $205,000 to $215,000.