Decision day is near for Lawrence public schools.
The school board on Monday is set to hire a new superintendent for USD 497. The choices are down to two: both black men in their 40s from a pair of school districts in the Kansas City metropolitan area that are far more urban than the Lawrence district. Both districts also have had academic struggles that dwarf those of the Lawrence school system.
But both finalists also bring significant experience in working with large populations of minority students to improve their performance, which has been an issue Lawrence leaders have said is critical.
Whichever man wins the job, it will be his first time serving as the top official in a school district. Anthony Lewis, 42, has been in the administrative ranks of the Kansas City, Mo., school district for nearly seven years, but has been in his current position as assistant superintendent for about 13 months. Jayson Strickland, 46, has been a district-wide administrator with the Kansas City, Kan., school district for about a dozen years, but has had his current position of deputy superintendent since the beginning of this school year.
One of them will lead one of the state’s larger school districts, serving about 12,000 students and employing about 1,800 people. The district has had two superintendents since 2009, with the last one, Kyle Hayden, staying on the job for a little less than a year before resigning to take a lower-ranking administrative job within the district.
School board members are expected to introduce the new superintendent — who will start serving in the district July 1 — following a special 6 p.m. board meeting on Monday at the district offices, 110 McDonald Drive.
Here’s another look at the two finalists.
Anthony Lewis has studied enough data to know the odds against children with his upbringing.
He grew up in a single-family home in Talladega, a town of about 15,000 in east-central Alabama. To help him overcome those circumstances, his mother surrounded him with positive role models and instilled the value of education. A teacher at the Helen Keller School for the Deaf and Blind in Talladega, she also influenced his career choice.
“As I got older, I volunteered at Helen Keller,” Lewis said. “That’s where I first developed a passion for special education.”
That passion led to a special education degree from Alabama State University in Montgomery and then a special ed job in the Montgomery school district. After five years in the classroom and earning his master’s in educational leadership from Alabama State, Lewis was offered an assistant principal position at E.D. Nixon Elementary in Montgomery.
A year later, when he became principal of the school, he got his first chance to work at turning a school around. The elementary school was on the verge of being taken over by the state due to its poor performance.
Teachers were at the center of the turnaround, but Lewis admits one of his first actions was encouraging the retirement of some teachers who were on staff.
“There were teachers with 20 or 30 years experience who had used the same lesson plan over and over again and expected to get different results,” he said.
Tamika Townsend was a second-grade teacher at E.D. Nixon when Lewis arrived. She said he created a positive school environment that welcomed all students That was key in the school’s 50 percent reduction in disciplinary actions while he was principal, she said.
“He was very hands on,” she said. “He was in classrooms and part of every activity. We had an after-school program, and he was very good at pulling in students, even those with behavioral issues.”
Awards followed for Lewis and the elementary school. Among them was a 90/90/90 designation, meaning the school was one where 90 percent of the students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, 90 percent of the students were ethnic minorities and 90 percent of the students scored highly on academic achievement tests.
The success in Alabama led to a job in the Kansas City, Mo., school district, which had failed accreditation processes in Missouri for nearly three decades. Lewis was hired in July 2011 as the district’s director of elementary education. He was promoted to his current $143,000 per year position as assistant superintendent of leadership in December 2016.
There have been signs of improvement in the Kansas City, Mo., district in recent years. In 2012, the district’s Annual Progress Report score was 22 out of 140. In 2016, it improved to 98, which was good enough to qualify the district for accreditation for the first time in 30 years, Lewis said.
However, in 2017, the score slipped to 89.5. The Missouri education department, though, notes two assessment scores were omitted from the state’s 2017 APR scores because of testing problems, which may have contributed to the drop.
Lewis said he’s taken lessons from the district, including the importance of spending money on professional development for staff.
“The district spends a tremendous amount of money on vendors expecting there to be results,” he said. “There was a lot spent on programs and not professional development. We spent a lot of time making sure programs would be tighter aligned with curriculum.”
He said he would be excited to work with Lawrence teachers.
“Lawrence is poised to be one of the best school districts in the country,” he said. “That’s the vision I have for the Lawrence school district if I am afforded the opportunity. My goal is to make Lawrence a model school district in the United States.”
When Jayson Strickland gives an account of his life, it all revolves around his hometown.
“I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs and educators,” he said. “My parents had a large preschool in Kansas City, Kan. I grew up in the presence of an entrepreneurial business and in the presence of education.”
After attending Grace Lutheran School in his hometown, Strickland spent his high school years at Washington High School in the Kansas City, Kan., school district. His only extended absence from his hometown was his college years at Kansas State University. Once he earned a degree in elementary education in 1994, he returned to the Kansas City, Kan., school district as a third-grade teacher.
“I am a teacher to my core,” he said. “Whenever I can plug in to students, it energizes me."
Strickland left the classroom to become principal of Hawthorn Elementary from 2001 to 2006. On his arrival, Hawthorn was one of the poorest-performing elementary schools within the “cluster” that fed Wyandotte High School, he said.
“We did some very good work,” he said. “We were a school the state identified as struggling. We were able to move off that particular status.”
That was achieved through the building of stronger relationships with students and families and professional development that targeted literacy and teaching to state standards, Strickland said.
In the 12 years since he left Hawthorn, Strickland has scaled the district’s organizational flow chart, successively holding positions as executive director of instruction, executive director of curriculum and assistant superintendent. He began his current $145,000 per year deputy superintendent job at the beginning of this school year.
One of his current duties involves coordination of the Kansas City, Kan., school district’s $235 million bond issue, Strickland said.
“I’m involved in how we plan spaces to support educational programs, meeting with architects and engineers and informing the community,” he said. “We’re touching every school in some capacity.”
Keith Jones, principal of South Middle School in Lawrence, worked with Strickland in the Kansas City, Kan., school district in various capacities.
He found Strickland to be consistent, fair, a good listener and able to reach out to diverse groups in the community, Jones said.
He approached Strickland for advice when he was considering going into administration, Jones said.
“He told me to think through the process and to develop a plan of action,” he said. “He’s not someone to make knee-jerk reactions.”
District leaders have pointed to some recent gains in the graduation rates in the Kansas City, Kan. school district. Graduation rates went from 64.3 percent in 2014 to 69.2 percent in 2016, although both of those numbers are below the state average of 86.1 percent.
State assessment scores also are well below state averages. For example, 51.47 percent of district students tested at level 1 for math and 53.62 percent were at level 1 in English language arts in 2017. Level 1 is the lowest of the report card’s four performance levels.
Strickland said the test results reflect the district’s challenges in a community with many economically disadvantaged students and those learning to speak English. According to the state report card, 85 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches and 40 percent are listed as English language learners, both much higher than state averages.
“To be frank and transparent, we absolutely would like to see higher scores,” Strickland said. “We think we have things in place to move that. Once the test is in place longer, I think the trend data will move.”
Strickland is impressed with the Lawrence district’s test scores and its graduation rate, but acknowledged the district’s challenge of improving outcomes of minority students. Having a chance to tackle that problem is one of the things that has drawn him to the Lawrence job.
“It’s a great school district with high test scores and great amenities in the community,” he said. “A school district can only be excellent if they meet the needs of all students. People are really good in this community. What I have found fascinating is there is a true desire in this community to make sure all students have access to success.”
School board member: No conflict of interest exists
Despite working for the same school district that one of the superintendent finalists is an administrator of, Lawrence school board member Melissa Johnson will cast a vote Monday on who should be hired for the top job.
Johnson, an elementary teacher in the Kansas City, Kan. school district, said she took part in candidate interviews the past two weeks, including those with Jayson Strickland, the deputy superintendent of the Kansas City, Kan., district.
She only knew Strickland through districtwide activities such as the district's convocation and professional development events, Johnson said. Strickland had no role in deciding her employment, salary or other personnel matters related to her, she said.
“There hasn’t been any talk of conflict of interest,” she said. “I don’t have any direct interaction with Dr. Strickland.”