After a unanimous vote by the Knox County Board of Education in March, Bob Thomas was selected to serve as superintendent for Knox County Schools.

Thomas has served Knox County Schools for his entire career. He began as a teacher in 1973 and, before his current appointment, had been serving as assistant superintendent since 1990.

The Knoxville Chamber spoke with Superintendent Thomas to discuss his top priorities for Knox County Schools and dive into some of the issues surrounding local education.

CHAMBER: What are your top priorities for Knox County Schools as Superintendent? 

THOMAS: My top priorities for Knox County Schools are the three that I have been talking about since I was appointed superintendent. Those are increasing student achievement, creating a positive culture, and eliminating disparities of any kind. Parents send us their best every day, and every one of those students is entitled to the best education we can provide.

CHAMBER: How do you plan to effectively communicate your priorities to teachers and staff to get them on board?

THOMAS: Since I started in April, I have been sharing with teachers, principals, and staff my top priorities and discussing how we can tie our strategies into each of those priorities. As schools starts, we will continue to have those conversations and communicate our progress to all of our stakeholders through various messaging efforts.

CHAMBER: How will you ensure Knox County students continue to improve academically, particularly in regard to reading proficiency?

THOMAS: We have to be very intentional in everything we do. We have been evaluating our programs to see which ones are working and which ones we might need to adjust in order to get better academic results. With regard to reading, we are already doing work to expand our literacy program. I think there is opportunity to equip all teachers to teach reading. We will be integrating the program into more subject areas including social studies and science and continuing to expand it to middle and high school. Our work won’t be done until all students are reading on grade level. We have also purchased new textbooks for math and social studies that are more aligned with state standards, and we are implementing several new ACT and after-school tutoring programs to help our students be more prepared. Additional professional development opportunities will be available to our teachers and staff as well.

CHAMBER: A top concern in schools right now is eliminating disparities in discipline and restorative justice practices. How do you plan to address this in Knox County Schools?

THOMAS: Eliminating disparities in discipline and academics is among my top priorities, and we must take an honest look at our approaches in these areas and how they impact all students. The Board of Education, along with our administrative staff, has been looking really hard at our discipline policies. I like the idea of restorative practices. When students struggle to read, we work with them on reading, but when they struggle to behave, we fuss at them — so I think we are moving in the right direction by reinforcing positive behaviors. That’s not to say a student will never receive disciplinary action, but when we focus on making the school environment a positive one, students feel cared for and supported. When that happens, studies show, they do better. We are also implementing several curriculum strategies and engagement opportunities to help increase understanding among our English Language Learners (ELL) and their families and make them feel more welcome.

CHAMBER: What are your thoughts on Career and Technical Education (CTE), and how do you see it benefitting local employers and the economy?

THOMAS: I think Knox County Schools has done a good job of providing multiple pathways to our students, but I think we can do more. More than 12.5 million high school and college students are enrolled in CTE courses across the nation, and the number keeps growing. Just last month, the Education Commissioner and Board of Education approved increasing our CTE class size across the district because we have more students wanting to take CTE classes than we could serve due to state limitations. The foundation to succeeding in this area, though, is rigorous program standards that provide hands-on context to academic material and prepare students for the world of work. The more educational opportunities and industry certifications we can provide to our students, the more students will be able to do what their diploma says they can do.

CHAMBER: How can Knox County business leaders support quality local education?

THOMAS: We have to do a better job of reaching out to our business community and educating them on what we do and why it matters as far as improving quality of life, enhancing our community, and developing a skilled workforce. We plan to do more outreach in the coming year, but there are programs in place already that provide insight and opportunities for support. Our Business Partnerships program, for instance, helps our schools establish a working relationship with community organizations and businesses, which includes our successful coupon book sales, Teacher of the Year, the Teacher Supply Depot, and the PTA Clothing Center. We are also incredibly fortunate to have the support of a
community board called Partners in Education which oversees Dine Out for Education and Career Day as well as the distribution of the Barney Thompson Scholarship. Businesses who participate in or support any of these programs directly impact the lives of our students and teachers and enrich the experience they have in classrooms every day.