From a table Tuesday in the Lawrence High School cafeteria, West Middle School eighth-grade math teacher Holden Kraus said superintendent candidate Anthony Lewis said the right thing to impress him.
“Anybody who recognizes teachers are the reason we are where we’re at and will get us where we need to go is the kind of leader I want to follow,” he said.
Kraus was among the about 100 teachers, students, parents and community members who attended the meet-and-greet opportunity with the 48-year-old Lewis, an assistant superintendent in the Kansas City, Mo., school district. The public will have the opportunity to meet the other finalist for the position, Kansas City, Kan., school district Deputy Superintendent Jayson Strickland, from 5 to 6 p.m. Wednesday in the Lawrence High School library.
In his comments to open the meet-and-greet, Lewis spoke of the central role of teachers in the improvement of one of the schools where he worked — E.D. Nixon Elementary School in Montgomery, Ala., where he spent six years. He earned his bachelor’s degree in special education and master’s degree in educational leadership from Alabama State University, intending to become a special education coordinator with the Alabama Department of Education, he said. His career path changed, however, when an assistant principal position opened up at E.D. Nixon.
A month into that job, his principal told him the state had sent notice it was taking over the administration of the school because of its poor performance, Lewis said. The school had been on the state’s improvement list for eight years, he said. The principal also told him she was grooming him to become principal when she took a job at the district’s central office at the end of the year, he said.
The school showed improvement during his year as assistant principal, he said, and that trend continued when he took the helm.
“Long story short, we hired some additional teachers and we had some retirement parties,” he said. “Seems like we were having retirement parties just about every month, but that was part of the process of making sure we had quality teachers for our students.”
In the 2010-2011 school year, three years after he became principal, the school was recognized as one of the top 18 elementary schools in Alabama, Lewis said. He gave credit to teachers for the turnaround.
“It was the teachers,” he said. “It was dedicated teachers who understood our students, dedicated teachers who had different modalities about how to reach students, but most all it was teachers who wanted to be there.”
Lewis said he was recruited to his current job, which pays $143,000 a year, because of the publicity E.D. Nixon received for the turnaround. Once again, he walked into a challenging situation. The Kansas City, Mo., school district had performed so poorly on the state’s annual progress report that it had lost its state accreditation.
“Remember, I came to Kansas City public schools in 2012,” he said. “That year, the district scored 22.5 points out of 140 possible, so it was unaccredited. Last year, Kansas City public schools scored 98 points. We went from being unaccredited to provisionally accredited to 98 points and fully accredited.”
Lewis told the gathering he was impressed with the school district and city after recent visits and from his research. He said his hope was to help the district become a national model of excellence by improving on the many good things it was already doing.
“How can we take it even further?” he asked. “How can we get to the point we have people around the country come in and say, ‘Wow, you have amazing things here?' That’s the point I want to get to.”
After listening to Lewis, LHS junior Sanders Barbee said she was excited about what he could do at the Lawrence school district given his track record.
“I like what he said about becoming a national model,” Barbee said.
District parent Charlie Dominguez said Lewis' comments convinced him Lewis had an interest in being a longtime member of the community. That was needed in a district that has had so much turnover in its top job in recent years, he said.
“A lot of people want to make sure the next superintendent is a stable choice,” he said. “I think he showed he wants to be a part of the community for a long time.”
Lewis' final interview with the Lawrence school board took place after the meet-and-greet. Strickland's interview will be Wednesday after his meet-and-greet. The board plans to announce its choice for the position Monday. David Cunningham, the district's chief legal counsel and executive director of human resources, said the position was advertised with a salary of $205,000 to $215,000.