The Super

How does new Knox County Schools Superintendent James McIntyre plan on tackling Knoxville's education problems?

It's been over a year since the Knox County School Board decided to buy out former Superintendent Charles Lindsey's contract and ask him to leave. Now, after whittling the list down from 40 candidates—including internal candidates like Interim Superintendent Roy Mullins and Assistant Superintendent Bob Thomas—they settled on Boston Public Schools Chief Operating Officer James McIntyre.

McIntyre, 40, is coming to a district that—at 54,000 students— is nearly as populous as Boston's, but which has less than half its nearly $800 million annual budget.

It's also got some problems. While KCS, as a whole, has shown improvement in nearly every academic category over the past few years in its annual No Child Left Behind Act assessments, seven of its 12 high schools have been placed on NCLB's "High Priority" list for improvements. KCS also has the lowest per-pupil funding of the state's three major urban school districts.

What does McIntyre plan to do about these issues? How does he respond to some of the criticism that's already been lobbed his way? And why's he getting paid so much?

Metro Pulse staff writer Charles Maldonado put these questions to him in a phone interview. KCS spokesman Russ Oaks sat in on the interview. What follows is an edited transcript.

There's been one item on your resume that has caused some concern, especially among teachers in the district. And it's that you only have one year of teaching experience (from 1992 to 1993 at the Vincent Gray Alternative High School in East St. Louis, Ill.). What would you say to people who think that in order to run a school system, you should have more classroom experience?

The one-year teaching experience, what it did was give me an appreciation for what it really is, what it means for the level of preparation of energy and effort it takes to be a good instructor. The one year teaching doesn't necessarily make me an expert in instruction, but it certainly gives me an appreciation for it.

And the rest of my resume, when you look at it: The last 10 years I've been with the Boston Public Schools, the last two years I've been chief operator of it.

I think that once teachers get to know me, they'll understand that my focus really is on teaching and learning and high-quality instruction.

Why does it look like you're going to be offered a salary of $240,000—$80,000 more than the previous superintendent?

I think that the salary is pretty well commensurate with what the salaries of superintendents of similar districts are being offered. It's also fairly well commensurate with salaries in the private sector. When you look at CEOs of enterprises of a similar size, it's actually less than a lot of those CEOs make.

That salary will be based at least partly on performance incentives. One of the major goals of the school system revolves around graduation rates, which, as of the last assessment, are 79.2 percent. The state goal is 90 percent. What sort of benchmarks are you going to set toward reaching that 90 percent?

I'm open to a lot of different possibilities around what the structure might look like. I think as we look at the future of Knox County Schools, graduation rates are certainly an area I'd like to take a closer look at. I think as we have kids graduating from our high schools, they'll have to be ready for other opportunities, for post-secondary education, for other post-secondary options.

I think high schools will certainly be a priority.

What strategies worked in other districts?

A lot of the types of things that we've focused on up here in Boston and in other places is around the idea of developing strong relationships between adults and students, making sure they have the opportunity for the adults to know the students one on one, and develop those relationships to help kids condition the future, to help kids think about what's there for them beyond high school. That's certainly one.

Having a very rigorous curriculum is certainly something that a lot of folks have focused on in terms of high school, making sure they know the standards that we set are high, the expectations that we have are high. And making sure we have strategies to engage kids, that the pedagogy engages kids in the learning process.

Are we lacking in any curriculum areas in particular?

I've looked at the data, and I think there are some areas in particular we'd like to focus on, but I think it is a little premature for me to get into anything that specific yet.

Of the three largest school systems in the state, Knox County spends the least money per pupil ($7,732 vs. $9,300 in Davidson County and $9,854 in the Memphis system). How much of a problem is that? Do you plan on working to change that?

I've talked to a lot of people in a lot of different school districts, and I've never heard anyone say, ‘We've got plenty of money. We have enough.' What it comes down to is, how do you make sure that you maximize those resources?

A lot of people have asked me, ‘Well, Boston spends over $10,000 per kid, and we spend less than that down here in Knox County Schools.' And a lot of that has to do with the cost of living, but a lot of that is $7,700 is not a small amount of money. It's a substantial amount of money and it can be leveraged to really provide a substantial education.

Local school funding goes through County Commission. How do you feel about dealing with a County Commission that, at best, can be described as somewhat dysfunctional?

Well, you work within the context of the situation you're in. I don't know about the veracity of what you're saying in terms of if there's dysfunction or not, but I do know that we have to all work together to make sure we offer a great education for our kids.

I know politics sometimes do enter into the issue of resources being appropriated, but you're going to have whatever process you have. That's the reality of a school district. Our job is to get those resources as widely as we can.

Seven of the 12 high schools in Knox County have been cited as "High Priority" under No Child Left Behind standards. Can you talk about why high schools appear so prevalently on that list?

Like I said before, high schools are going to be an area of interest for me. The data speaks to where a number of the high schools are on the accountability spectrum. I think most school districts are grappling with where schools fall on the accountability scale in terms of No Child Left Behind, and how do they respond.

I think most of them are very context-specific and not every solution can be unilaterally pushed on to individual schools. In Boston, we've put together a fairly comprehensive strategy for underperforming schools that are at the far end of the accountability scale.

And what were some of the elements of that strategy?

They're called our Superintendent Schools. Some of the elements were increased professional development, increased time in Superintendent Schools. We actually work with our teacher's unions during negotiations an additional hour every day. We use incentives to make sure we get the best and brightest teachers—and often those are our more experienced teachers—to work in those schools.

And additional flexibility. In Boston we have a very structured contract where seniority is very important. At Superintendent Schools, seniority is not as important.

Right now, Fulton High and Austin-East are undergoing a restructuring process. As part of it, the teachers have had to reapply for their positions. Is that sort of thing valuable to the process?

I know that in certain districts, during restructuring, they have done that. In others, they have not. It depends on the situation and it depends on what the need is at the time.

Is that the type of thing that is valuable to what you called "professional development?"

Russ Oaks: That is not what we mean by professional development. All that is is the superintendent determined that he wanted to make sure that we take these schools from the ground up and that we had the people in those schools who wanted to be in those schools and wanted to perform based on the model for which those schools are being built. That's why he said, "I want everybody to reapply, and we'll reassess everyone."

Do you think that No Child Left Behind has been a good program?

People can disagree about its implementation and its methodology. But the reason I think No Child Left Behind, overall, has been good for us in education, and for the rest of the country, is because it's really catalyzed the conversation and the discussion about public education.

I think that's a really important conversation that we have. It's put a spotlight on making sure we educate all students: students with disabilities, students whose first language isn't English, students from all backgrounds.

Anytime folks are really thinking hard about what kids should be able to do in the fourth grade, eighth grade, before they graduate high school, I think that's a good thing. They may be disagreeing about how it's implemented, whether it's fully funded, but I think it's a good thing.