Lawrence school district superintendent calls for unity to support students

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During Lawrence Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Lewis’ first State of the Schools address on Tuesday evening, the theme was clear from the beginning and was emphasized throughout the whole evening: we are stronger together. 

Lewis spoke for just more than an hour about the district’s response to COVID-19 and budget cuts, graduation rates, innovative education models, and other important topics that have defined his tenure as superintendent entering his sixth year.

“Tonight my message is simple,” Lewis said. “We have a lot to be proud of in this district. We’ve made some tremendous progress. There are challenges that we must address and when we do address these challenges, and come together as a community the best is yet to come for us. Our better days are ahead of us if we remain focused and lean on one another because we are certainly stronger together.”

The evening was bookended by performances by Liberty Memorial Central Middle School’s Excalibur choir and the Free State High School Chamber Orchestra. Student Harrison Leiszler provided an intermission featuring an electric violin, loop pedal and innovative version of “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5. 

Free State senior Becca Craft, who serves on Lewis’ student advisory committee, introduced Lewis to begin the address. Lewis said he hopes to make it an annual event going forward.

Updates on budget challenges, repurposed buildings

Although budget constraints challenged the district, they also allowed for much needed growth, Lewis said during the address. Lewis didn’t dive into details of the past few years’ cuts, but he emphasized the ability of the district to raise teacher wages and repurpose buildings to serve different needs.

During the 2021-22 school year, cuts solved a multimillion-dollar deficit caused by a sharp decrease in enrollment following the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as rising utility and building costs. 

Last year, the district made millions more in cuts, this time to achieve goals outlined by the district, including raising staff wages and building up reserve funds.

Both sets of cuts led to impassioned public reactions about school closures, staff cuts and district priorities as a whole.

Last year, the district and the Lawrence teacher’s union ratified a contract that will produce raises for teachers and classified staff members across the district. The total amount of the raises totaled $6.6 million, with 56% going toward certified staff, 39% to classified staff, and 5% to administration.

The school board in July approved a contract extension for Lewis that more than doubled his annual retirement benefits. He received a salary increase of $2,765 last year in between contract extensions. 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times A crowd of a few dozen people turned out for the State of Schools address.

Although he admitted that work still needed to be done, he applauded the work of the school board and staff union in helping to raise wages to levels more competitive with similar districts. 

He said that the district was able to ensure that 70% of classified staff were making $15 an hour or more.

“We heard that we wanted to get our classified staff to a livable wage, and that turns out to be around $15 an hour …” Lewis said. “There’s more work to be done in that area. But I will tell you we are headed in the right direction.”

Lewis said the district has been able to implement new creative solutions in buildings that formerly housed elementary or middle schools until those schools were closed and the buildings repurposed. 

During the most recent round of budget cuts, the district closed both Broken Arrow and Pinckney elementary schools to much public outcry from the communities those schools served.

Lewis said the buildings’ new roles are a success. Broken Arrow now hosts the district’s Native American Student Services, which since moving from central district offices has seen its reach grow massively.

Similarly, Pinckney now hosts the district’s Community Connections programs, which include the secondary therapeutic classroom and Community Transition, or C-Tran, program. C-Tran supports people between the ages of 18 and 21 in developing vocational skills, fostering independent living, transitioning from a school environment to the challenges of adult life and more.

“We have been through a lot together,” Lewis said. “We think about it, with COVID, with budget cuts and other things that were going on, we have been through a lot together. And you all make us stronger as a school system.” 

New York Montessori, the first public Montessori schools in Kansas, has seen growth that has the district considering creating more classrooms. Lewis said this was a huge success and that the decision to turn the school into a Montessori school was partially to help increase enrollment, which he said the recent demand shows has worked.

Kennedy, formerly an elementary school, was repurposed into an early childhood center that serves children 5 and younger. It has also seen growth. Lewis praised that the center now serves 531 children and their families. 

Kennedy Elementary’s closure after the 2020-21 school year drew strong community backlash and challenges with shifting students.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times

Finally, Lewis expressed excitement about the repurposing of the building he was speaking in: Liberty Memorial Central Middle School. 

The school board voted last year to approve the district’s recommendation to repurpose the middle school into a themed or magnet school. Currently a committee is working to finalize what the plan for the school will be. They recently said that one idea would be to transition the middle school to a STEAM school,  focusing on science, technology, engineering, arts and math. 

Lewis reaffirmed that the district has no plans to close LMCMS. 

Finally, Lewis mentioned the district’s new investment into possible solar energy projects as a way to save money and operate using more renewable energy. 

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Graduation rates and other academic data

For Lewis, looking at academic data in the district was a mixed bag. 

For much of the night, he emphasized the success of the district in raising graduation rates and academic performance across the district. But he also stressed the need to continue working to ensure that all students are set up to succeed after leaving the district. 

In 2021, USD 497 lagged behind the state average graduation rate by 4 percentage points. But in 2022 that number had jumped to be higher than the state average, an increase to 89.6% from 84.2%, marking the highest graduation rate for the district in 16 years. 

“I am so proud of the progress that we made for our scholars,” Lewis said. “The results are in our data. We are graduating more students … Our goal is to prepare our students for college or careers.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Lewis speaks proudly about the increase in graduation rates.

Lewis made note that, even in a college town, ensuring that students are prepared to choose either college or a career after high school is crucial. He mentioned the district’s work to increase business and industry certifications and create connections and pathways for students with colleges, as was noted by the United State Secretary of Education last month

He said that the biggest challenge to education in Lawrence are barriers that many students face, such as a lack of stable food and housing outside of school. 

​​”I will tell you if a student comes in hungry, finishing your two-digit multiplication worksheet is not at the top of the agenda,” Lewis said. “But if you give me a meal, you give me a granola bar, you give me something, now I can be ready to learn.”

He also said that there was still work to do to ensure that students of color are reaching grade-adequate levels on state testing. 

He said that Schwegler Elementary poses an example of success on this front, where students of all races and grade levels have seen growth in their academic performance. 

Lewis said high levels of chronic absenteeism was an area the district needed to address. A student is chronically absent if they are absent for more than 10% of school days. He said this was the motivation behind a new district campaign called Every Day Matters

Finally, he mentioned that the district has challenges with student behavior it is working to address. They are continually working to implement restorative practices. Lewis cited that during the fourth quarter of last school year, the district used restorative practices in more than 80% of instances. 

One way the district has been working to ensure that all students have equal opportunities is through USD 497’s newly adopted equity policy. 

“I will tell you, after speaking with superintendents from around the country and watching some of the news, particularly in Florida,” Lewis said, “I’m so fortunate I have the opportunity to lead a district and a community that allows us to focus on all students. This certainly is transformative work.”

Call for unity

Lewis closed the presentation with some highlights from the school district’s last few years, including teaching awards, extra curricular success and a new private fiber optic network.

He called on community members to continue to get involved and help the district be stronger together by participating in their new mentorship initiative.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times

“As a superintendent, I stand here tonight to tell you that because of our dedicated staff, our dedicated families and our talented scholars, the state of our schools is strong,” Lewis said in closing. “However, it can be a lot stronger, and we will get there. It will be stronger when we continue to work together.”

Lewis explained how he aims to keep USD 497 unified with other institutions of Lawrence via regular meetings with local government leaders and other community partners. He encouraged the entire community to maintain a similar commitment to working together to continue successes and overcome challenges.

“As a community, we must continue to work together,” Lewis said. “We must remember that while we face constraints, it is our unity that remains a limitless resource. And so together we can continue to innovate, adapt and thrive.”

Lewis outlined some key student data, bringing attention to the number of students of color in the district and the 40% of students in the district classified as economically disadvantaged. He said that progress made by the district to help fight for justice and equity for all students was only possible because of unified commitment from school communities. 

“Your allegiance does not have to be to me,” Lewis said. “But it does have to be all 10,658 of our scholars.”

Lewis emphasized that work done by the district to raise teacher salaries, create innovative new education systems and raise students achievement is something that has required, and will require, continued unity. 

“As we embark on what lies ahead for Lawrence Public Schools, I want to underscore the power and the significance of unity,” Lewis said. “This community has a way of rallying together around a cause that is important to our children.”

The speech will be posted on Lawrence High School’s Room 308 Productions’ YouTube channel

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Cuyler Dunn (he/him), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a student at the University of Kansas School of Journalism. He is a graduate of Lawrence High School where he was the editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Budget, and was named the 2022 Kansas High School Journalist of the Year. Read more of his work for the Times here.

Molly Adams (she/her), photojournalist and news operations coordinator for The Lawrence Times, can be reached at molly (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Check out more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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