Lawrence school board hears students’ praises on new program to boost graduation rates, renews superintendent’s contract and more

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The Lawrence school board met Monday at district offices. Here are items from our preview and what happened with them, plus some additional notes.

Key points — the board:

Heard from staff and students about the Lawrence College and Career Center Academy program.

↪ Context: Principal Bill Dewitt gave an update on student successes and challenges during the 2020-2021 school term, the program’s first year. The program includes 10th through 12th graders from Lawrence and Free State high schools and aims to boost graduation rates in the district and remove post-secondary barriers to employment and continued education. It also serves as the district’s alternative high school program. 

Presentation slides showed declining graduation rates in the district during the last four years, 84.2% to 82.4%, while Kansas’ overall rates have improved, 85.7% to 87.5%.

Dewitt said the academy was formed using the district’s existing resources, with an application period starting in March 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We can’t kick it down the road,” Dewitt said, adding it was an uncertain time. “We had permission, we had backing and we had to make it happen.”

Senior Isaac Riffel told the board it was a “fantastic school” and even better than the private school he attended early in his education. Mental health services, relationships, small class sizes, extraordinary teachers and individually paced education make it “the best high school experience” Riffel has ever had.

“You’re not only a student at the academy, you’re a young professional learning something new every day.”

Sophomore Michael Douglas Winebrenner said he previously attended Free State High School, where he felt like “just another face in the sea of students.” The academy program has given Winebrenner a community.

“This school has helped me improve academically and socially.” 

On the brink of dropping out of school, senior Gracyn Garrett came to the academy program as a last resort. The nonjudgmental nature of the school gave Garrett pride, hope and a plan to graduate with training in food handling, child development and certified nursing assistance, she said.

“It’s no flattery or exaggeration to say that this school saved my life,” she said. “They have given me the materials to build my skills and the confidence to know that my past doesn’t have to define me, that I’m intelligent, capable and prepared to handle what comes next.”

Dewitt told the board there’s more than one pathway for students to be successful.

“We want them to at least try their local high school. Give those local high schools an attempt to use the resources there and the teachers to make them feel welcome, make it work and hopefully that’s where they stay and they graduate from. If they don’t, then they have an option and they have an opportunity to apply to the College and Career Academy.”

Families, students and counselors have input in the choice to start the application process. Dewitt said the school employs daily well-being check-ins and seminars. And the program’s goal is to maintain communication and a relationship with all former academy students after they leave.

Dewitt said the program started with 45 students in the fall and ended the year with 67. Sixty-three of those students, or 94%, are still on track to graduate with a high school diploma.

The program expects to start its second year with 82 students this fall, including 37 seniors. The program’s goal is a 100% graduation rate.

Carole Cadue-Blackwood told the students they gave the board hope and inspiration.

“The drop-out issue has plagued this community for decades, and this option is gonna be a game-changer and it has potential to save lives,” she said.

Voted to continue meeting twice a month but designating the first meeting as a business meeting and the second meeting as a report meeting.

↪ Context: The board generally meets twice each month, with exceptions around winter and spring breaks. The proposal gave the board two options: to meet on the second Monday of each month with a tentative, as-needed meeting on the fourth Monday; and a new, separate option that meetings on second Mondays would be designated as business meetings — for topics like the budget, professional development, policy and governance — and meetings on fourth Mondays would primarily focus on reports to the board from district staff. Each would still offer regular meeting functions such as public commentary.

During its June 28 meeting, the board discussed the possibility of holding the board’s second monthly meeting on an as-needed basis with mixed opinions. 

Jones said tonight that the second option would allow the board to run meetings more efficiently while addressing community concerns that had been shared with the board.

Find the meeting calendar for the 2021-2022 school year here.

↪️  Passed, 7-0.

Approved a memorandum of understanding between the school district and the city of Lawrence for Safe Routes to School.

↪ Context: Safe Routes to School is a national program that aims to improve walking and biking for kids. Since 2019, community stakeholders have gathered input to develop mapped routes and strategies for walking and biking citywide. An MOU is necessary to formalize how the school district and city will work together on the plan and establish a working group between plan updates, the first of which will occur in 2025. Find the Lawrence plan here and the revised MOU here.

As the Times has reported, the board tabled the issue at its June 14 meeting after board members Shannon Kimball and Cadue-Blackwood voiced concerns. Since then, the district and city have worked together to edit wording in the original draft that Kimball said might obligate the district to implement curriculum programs and assume the funding of crossing guards.

Superintendent Anthony Lewis told the board tonight the new version of the MOU had been changed as requested by the board.

↪️  Passed, 7-0.

Kicked off a new meeting cycle with the election of board leadership for the 2021-2022 school year. Erica Hill was chosen to replace Kelly Jones as board president. Kimball was selected as vice president.

↪️  Both votes passed, 7-0.

A few items of note from the consent agenda — the board: 

(Consent agenda = items that are considered altogether in one vote unless a board member or the superintendent requests that an item be removed and voted on separately)

Renewed the contract of Superintendent Lewis through the 2023-2024 school year. 

The package gives Lewis $226,530 for an annual salary, 20 paid vacation days, plus holidays recognized by the district (not to exceed 40 days) and 12 days paid sick leave. In an email response to the Times, Executive Director of Communications Julie Boyle said Lewis’ salary for the new contract is the same as the 2020-2021 school year. The new contract states the board may “provide Lewis with increases in salary as it may from time to time determine appropriate.” See the full contract here.

Approved an updated district leadership organizational chart for the 2021-2022 school year.

The updated org chart, posted here, shows two positions effectively replacing former Deputy Superintendent Anna Stubblefield. Patrick Kelly has a new title — chief academic officer — and Larry Englebrick does, too — interim chief operations officer. The director of facilities and operations position, which the district hired Englebrick to fill in February, appears vacant.

Designated attorney Brad Finkeldei, of Stevens & Brand LLP, as legal counsel for the 2021-2022 school year at the rate of $150 per hour. Finkeldei also serves on the Lawrence City Commission and is mayor of Lawrence.

↪️  Passed, 7-0 on consent agenda.

Other notes:

The board approved a personnel report in the consent agenda that included the appointment of Therese Brink Edgecomb as assistant principal and athletic director at West Middle School. Brink Edgecomb, who replaces Kathy Branson, was named interim principal and returns to the district after five years as a professional development coordinator and remote learning principal for Topeka’s Auburn-Washburn school district, according to a news release. The board also approved the selection of Liberty Memorial Central Middle School teacher Brent Burns as assistant principal and athletic director at LMCMS. Burns replaces Mike Gillman, who was appointed assistant principal and athletic director at Lawrence High School.

During his superintendent report, Lewis told the board he had discussed communication protocols and potential programs with Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez since the board’s meeting on June 28 when students and alumni asked for accountability for abusers and more protection for students and sexual assault survivors. Lewis said district staff has been meeting with students about the concerns as well and discussing programming related to district expectations for student-athletes.

Lewis said the Centers for Disease Control has recommended school bus drivers and passengers continue wearing face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. The CDC also has recommended unvaccinated students and teachers wear face masks. Lewis said he will meet with Douglas County public health officials later this week to discuss the CDC recommendations. Plans for the next school year will be shared with the community next week, Lewis said.

Lewis and several board members shared concerns about what they called “misinformation” by school board candidates during recent election forums. They cautioned the community about data shared related to staff salaries, performance testing and school funding, in particular.

The board met during back-to-back executive sessions (meaning in private) to discuss potential litigation and personnel matters. The board voted to accept the hearing officer’s recommendation and uphold the nonrenewal of a certified staff member.

The board’s next regular meeting is at 6 p.m. Monday, July 26. Find the board meeting agenda and related documents here. Watch the live board meeting via livestream here or tune in to Midco Channel 26.

Email before 5 p.m. July 26 to sign up to share public comments in person or remotely via WebEx.

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