Lawrence school district’s new superintendent ready to hit the ground running

photo by: Nick Krug

Anthony Lewis will officially begin as the Lawrence school district's superintendent this week. Lewis most recently served as an assistant superintendent in the Kansas City, Mo., school district. Lewis is pictured on Friday, June 29, 2018, outside Liberty Memorial Central Middle School.

As he talked recently about the new job he will start Monday as superintendent of the Lawrence school district, Anthony Lewis took a second to reflect on the name of the building he’ll work in.

“The Education Support and Distribution Center,” he said. “In a lot of places, it would just be called the district office, but when you think about it, that’s what we’re here to do: provide support to the teachers and principals on the front line.”

That aligns with the educational outlook that Lewis first developed as a volunteer at the Helen Keller School for the Deaf and Blind in his hometown of Talladega, Ala.

“I’m still that guy,” he said of the teen who volunteered at the school where his mother taught. “It’s about advocacy — advocacy for students and advocacy for teachers.”

After receiving a special education degree from Alabama State University in Montgomery, Lewis, 42, took that advocacy into the classroom as a special education teacher in the Montgomery school district. After five years, he moved on to become principal of one of the Montgomery district’s poorest-performing elementary schools. The national publicity he earned from turning that school around academically led to Kansas City, Mo., public schools hiring Lewis in July 2011 to the position of director of elementary education. He was promoted to assistant superintendent in that district in December 2016.

Lewis said his Kansas City office is all packed up for the move to Lawrence. And he and his wife, Tiffany, have moved into their new Lawrence home. Their six children, who are on a summer visit to their grandma in Alabama, will be joining them shortly.

The Lawrence school board chose Lewis in January for the $215,000-a-year superintendent position. He is replacing Kyle Hayden, who stepped down after less than a year as superintendent to become chief operations officer of the district.

During many visits to Lawrence since last winter, Lewis met with and listened to district staff, stakeholders and partners, he said. He visited 19 of the district’s 20 schools and met all the building principals and teachers union representatives.

“I wanted to do that,” he said. “What I did not want to happen was to get here and in the last second try to find out where the schools are. I wanted to meet people on the front end. On July 2, I want to hit the ground running with a pretty good context of where the schools are and who people are.”

Jessica Beeson, who will start her one-year term as president of the Lawrence school board on the day Lewis officially begins working for the district, said Lewis confirmed in the past five months what the board heard from him during the selection process. He is a leader who wants to listen and collaborate with students, teachers, administrators, the board, parents and community stakeholders, she said.

“He said he wanted to meet all staff and stakeholders,” she said. “He has already started doing that. He is keenly interested in listening and focusing on stakeholder involvement. These are things we’re already seeing, so it’s pretty exciting.”

Five goals

Those who haven’t had the chance to meet Lewis will have opportunities soon. He has prepared a list of five goals with 29 action items for his first year. One of the goals is to have six listening and learning sessions.

“I want to do those in my first 100 days,” he said. “It will be the opportunity at six different locations for me to listen to Lawrence community members and stakeholders and to gain their trust and confidence and to make sure I have a confident understanding of the district,” he said. “Not only that, I want to build some momentum and excitement around the work the district is already doing as we embark on completing our strategic plan.”

Lewis also plans to further introduce himself through the posting on the district website of his five goals. The other goals are:

• Making sure he and his staff have a transparent, collaborative and trusting relationship with the Lawrence school board.

• Keeping a “laser like” focus on identifying gaps in providing for the social and emotional needs of the district’s lowest-performing students and developing constructive programming to address those needs.

• Gaining an understanding of the district’s organizational structure to ensure it is efficient and effective in providing for the needs of students and teachers.

• Identifying barriers to student performance and opportunities to accelerate it.

“We’ll look for low-hanging fruit, but maybe there is some fruit on the ground we could pick up to accelerate the performance of our students,” Lewis said of that final goal.

There is excellent work going on nationwide that the district could emulate to remove student-achievement barriers and accelerate learning, but district educators have also already implemented innovative ideas that could serve as models, Lewis said. One that he learned of during a spring visit was the Wednesday club day that Principal Tammy Becker introduced at Hillcrest Elementary School.

The school is one of the district’s English as a second language cluster sites, and many of the students deal with transportation issues that make it difficult for them to participate in club activities scheduled after school, Lewis said. Becker has addressed the issue with Wednesday club days scheduled during regular school hours, in which students rotate through three clubs during the school year.

“It’s paying dividends for her (Becker), and I think it will continue to in terms of academic success,” he said. “There is a lot of amazing work that is being done across the country, but I’ll tell you this from my short time here — there’s some amazing things being done right here in Lawrence. If you think about a model, I think about the work she is doing.”

He will get out of his office to revisit schools on a regular basis and will insist that members of his administrative team do likewise, Lewis said. The point is, once again, to provide support with the message to teachers and principals that “we are all in this together.”

“There will be time blocked off on my calendar for school visits,” he said. “I have to stay connected to what’s happening in the schools. The teachers are there and the principals are there in the trenches. I want to make sure as we are making decisions here that we are making those decisions with contextual knowledge because we have been in the schools.”

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