Bob Thomas is under a two-year contract in his new position as Knox County Schools superintendent. He was hired about 10 weeks ago, and that short contract timeframe has been a wakeup call.
“I said, ‘Bob, you’ve got to have a sense of urgency about you,'” he told the Fountain City Business and Professional Association June 14. “You’ve got to make a difference, and you’ve got to make it now.”
And that difference can have an impact far outside the school system.
“It’s important to have an education system to where people want to move to Knox County and open businesses in Knox County because they want to put their kids in our schools,” he said. “That’s going to help our community.”
Thomas has an almost 45-year history in local schools, starting in the old Knoxville city school system and moving to Knox County schools with the merger. He told the members of the FCBPA that he has three goals for his tenure as superintendent: increase student achievement, build a positive culture and eliminate disparities within the school system.
These three goals go hand-in-hand. For example, addressing disparities within the school system will help grow student achievement. Thomas said he wants to see all students reading at grade level by third grade, and only 30 percent of economically disadvantaged students are reaching that goal. He also mentioned an Austin-East High School graduate who went on to become a finance major at UT. Once there, she found that many of her college classmates who attended other Knox County schools had access to high school programs that better prepared them for college.
“All means all,” Thomas said. “It’s our job to make sure we provide you and our students the best opportunities we can.”
Teachers and parents will be interested in the “create a positive culture” goal. Thomas recognized that tactics of previous leadership had put stress on students and teachers. He said testing will still happen, but his focus will be on people, not numbers.
“Maybe we’ve been so focused on the data that we’ve lost sight of what’s really important,” he said.
Another Thomas change that is currently underway is the introduction of “positive behavioral intervention strategies” instead of traditional discipline methods, especially suspensions. Traditional discipline will still be used, but PBIS is “one more tool in the toolbox” for teachers and administrators.
“Instead of putting students out of school, are there things we could be doing with our children so we are not putting them on the streets?” Thomas said.
The school system is even exploring cultural competency training for teachers, “so they can better understand kids of different cultures,” he said.
FCBPA president John Fugate thanked Thomas for his work and for speaking to the club. Fugate also recognized Katie Walsh, recipient of the FCBPA’s $1,500 scholarship. Walsh will attend ETSU in the fall and is looking forward to a career in physical therapy.
“When you’re able to do this for the people in the community, that’s what it’s all about,” said Fugate of the scholarship program.