June 20, 2021
Lawrence, US 80 F
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Hundreds sign online petition to ‘Keep Kennedy Elementary K-5’

Opponents of the Lawrence school district’s proposal to develop an early childhood community center at Kennedy Elementary hope to gain momentum through a petition on the website Change.org. 

Started by Carly Smith, the request asks School Board President Kelly Jones and Superintendent Dr. Anthony Lewis to “stop the ‘repurposing’ of Kennedy.” The petition can be found here.

As reported previously by The Lawrence Times, the district proposes forming community partnerships to expand early childhood programs and cut district costs. If approved by the school board, K-5 students would move to other elementary schools — possibly Cordley, New York or Prairie Park, according to a scenario proposed by the district and recommended by the Boundary Advisory Committee during a virtual meeting March 29.

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Community opposition

As of Friday afternoon, the petition had gained about 350 supporters. In an interview with the Times via a messaging app, Smith said Kennedy is more than a school.

“It’s a home, it’s a family,” she added, “a family that some students don’t have (otherwise).”

Smith writes in the petition that many Kennedy students are low-income or at-risk youth “who just had their worlds turned upside down in the last year” and need to get back to “some kind of normalcy with consistency.”

Smith, whose husband is head custodian at Kennedy, also cites larger classroom sizes in other schools and transportation challenges as detriments to the plan.

Demographics and budget cuts

Superintendent Dr. Anthony Lewis explains to Kennedy Elementary stakeholders during an online forum March 30, 2021, how enrollment is projected to continue its decline at the school.

According to online data compiled by the Kansas Department of Education for 2020, 62% of Kennedy’s students are considered economically disadvantaged, the highest rate among Lawrence’s 14 public elementary schools. The data also shows that 49% of Kennedy’s rolls are students with disabilities.

During the first of two online “Kennedy Conversations” with Lewis on March 30, participants flooded the forum with comments and questions about the timing and equity of the proposal. 

Lewis told the group the $722,000 anticipated savings with the closure of K-5 classrooms at Kennedy wouldn’t fill the projected $3 million funding gap the district estimates due to declining enrollment this school year and next. However, he said, community services and expanded early childhood programs, including special education, could benefit vulnerable populations in the eastern Lawrence neighborhood and improve economic outcomes.

And despite the perception of Kennedy as a low-performing school, Lewis said, the staff has “done an amazing job” in achieving the highest growth in state assessments of all district elementary schools.

“I do recognize and honor and appreciate that they’re helping me prove people wrong in terms of their perceptions of Kennedy,” Lewis said. 

Lewis said the district would gather more feedback from the school community by launching an online comment and rate exchange app called ThoughtExchange. Another online forum is scheduled from 6 to 7 pm Wednesday, April 7. District leaders hope to bring the plan to a vote before the school board the following Monday, April 12.

Clarification to district proposals

Some community members expressed confusion about the English as a Second Language proposal component (referred to as Option 2A) discussed during the March 29 boundary committee meeting. Stakeholders have asked how moving 62 Kennedy and Prairie Park residents attending the Hillcrest’s ESL Cluster Site to Cordley’s site would affect the proposal for Kennedy.

Julie Boyle, executive director of communications for the district, said in an email that the ESL portion discussed by the boundary committee was “preliminary and could be revisited or changed.”

“It is not part of the budget and program evaluation process. It doesn’t produce budget savings,” Boyle said. “It also is unrelated to the Kennedy early childhood community center/K-5 transition proposal, which is the recommendation that will be taken to the board on April 12 for consideration.”

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