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Second Open Letter from Interim Superintendent

While thousands of Knoxvillians mourn that our beloved Vols have fallen from the national football rankings, we can celebrate that our local school system is continuing to make progress in our quest to be the “best in the South.” Our graduation rate has risen to over 90%, and just last month, the Governor came to Mt. Olive Elementary to announce Tennessee’s spectacular growth on the science portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

When I became Interim Superintendent nearly five months ago, I wrote my first “open letter” to the community outlining our plans and priorities for the summer and fall. We have made good progress thus far with significant improvements in transportation, communications and human resources. I promised you a second letter after our new Board Members were sworn-in and acclimated. This is that letter.

First, I am pleased to report that the “new” School Board ratified the four priorities we had already identified for the year:

  1. Reading – Too many 3rd graders aren’t reading on grade level. Meeting this challenge is priority one. 
  2. College and Career Readiness – Too many high school seniors are scoring below the ACT benchmarks. This, too, must change.
  3. Individualized Learning – With or without one-to-one technology (i.e. an electronic device in each child’s hand), we are committed to personalizing learning for each and every student. This includes such innovative multiple pathways to success as our Career Magnet Academy, International Baccalaureate Program, L&N Stem Academy, Paul Kelly Academy and Accessing Community Employment (ACE) with the Great Schools Partnership, which helps students with disabilities build promising pathways to social and financial independence. 
  4. Elimination of Educational Disparities Based on Economic Status, Race and Disabilities – Implementing Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports in more than 30 schools has dramatically reduced our number of suspensions and expulsions. The employment of a new ombudsman will also give parents much needed assistance and support as they navigate our large – and sometimes intimidating – bureaucracy on behalf of their child.
The Board of Education – at its October retreat – added one additional priority to the list. We want Knox County Schools to be an “employer of choice.” We want Knoxville to be more than the Southern city young parents choose because they want to send their children to school here. We also want Knoxville to be more than the place where businesses locate because we have the best work force. We want teachers to choose Knoxville because it’s the best place to teach! Already, we are working to make that dream a reality. First, we are asking the state to let us customize our teacher evaluation system to better fit our local needs. We believe we can create an evaluation system that is even more aligned with good teaching and will also produce the buy-in that is critical to the success of any system of evaluation regardless of its merits. Second, we will work with our Governor, Mayor and County Commission to try to shepherd the resources to give our teachers a 4% pay raise next year. We must not falter in our commitment to make Tennessee the fastest growing state in the nation when it comes to teacher pay and Knox County one of the 20 top-paying systems in the state.

Finally, there is the search process for Knox County’s next Superintendent. Community input has been solicited and received in a variety of venues and formats including town-hall meetings, emails, letters and online comments. The Board will continue soliciting that input. At the same time, a three-person search committee has been appointed to design and oversee the actual search process. The committee is made up of Board Members Susan Horn, Tony Norman and Amber Rountree, who will serve as Chair.

It is an exciting time for education in Knox County as both our community and our state continue our upward climb to the top. While some Tennessee towns have become famous for barbecue and the blues or country music, it is my hope that Knoxville will become famous for something that matters more. Let’s make Knoxville famous for schools.


Buzz Thomas
Interim Superintendent