KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Podiums were arranged in Bearden High School and curtains were drawn for two candidates vying for the job as the next superintendent of Knox County Schools. They met for a question-and-answer event with the community, where people had a chance to submit questions and get answers.
Dr. Linda Cash is in the running, looking to move from her current position as the director of Bradley County Schools. The school district has a population of around 10,000 in 17 schools — around a sixth the population of Knox County Schools.
Dr. Jon Rysewyk is the other option for superintendent, the current Chief Academic Officer and Assistant Superintendent of Knox County Schools. He took to the podium and opened the conversation by saying he has been in the county for around 20 years, and his two daughters were educated in KCS.
Dr. Cash said it was a privilege to be a part of the search for a new superintendent, and spoke about the changing landscape of education and the importance of focusing on students. She said education had evolved in the last decade.
She also said she has three children who all graduated from public school, and all were athletes. Their experiences illustrated the importance of extracurricular activities, which she said can help children learn to cope with challenges and develop grit.
"We have to be a part of that change and invest in our students," she said. "Education is an investment, not cost. We grow students, it's what we do."
She said that she wanted the job to help ensure the school district is moving in a good direction, closing achievement gaps and helping students succeed in anything they decide to do.
Meanwhile, Dr. Rysewyk said that he wanted to be a part of a unique time in education when parents and families found a renewed focus on the lives of students. He said the COVID-19 pandemic made education a priority for parents, and he wanted to be part of the changes that can come from that newfound focus on the classroom.
Specifically, he said he wanted to raise third-grade reading rates and ninth-grade algebra rates. He said those were two core skills that prepare students for anything they want to do, setting them up for impactful careers. If students have issues in those subjects, it can get harder to address them in the years after the ninth and third grades.
Dr. Rysewyk said he would create teams of specialists focusing on subjects like reading to help students meet standards on core skills.
He also said that he wanted to address challenges that KCS was facing among the teacher workforce. He said he wanted to focus on finding teachers locally instead of trying to attract them from outside the community.
"The new name of the game isn't recruiting — it's how to build alternative pipelines to manufacture high-quality teachers," he said. "Research shows that's what turns it around for students — multiple years of high-quality teachers."
Dr. Cash said she would prioritize closing disparities in schools by focusing on the curriculum being presented to students. She said that she wanted to have conversations with teachers about how they could improve curriculums, instead of dictating what teachers can't do.
She also said she would focus on how schools can help students develop socially and emotionally so that educators can help students live healthy lifestyles.
Both also said they had plans to improve teacher retention in Knox County Schools. Cash said she wanted to develop intentional plans to recruit and retain teachers. A part of this plan would include portraying Knox County as an attractive place to work, posting on social media and trying to make education more appealing to young people just getting started in their careers.
Meanwhile, Dr. Ryswyck said he would continue giving teachers salary increases each year, the same as current Superintendent Bob Thomas. He said that Knox County also ranks at the bottom of large school districts, in Tennessee.
"Although work has been done, there is still work to do to keep teachers who want to be here," he said.
Dr. Ryswyck also addressed a question about masks in Knox County Schools by saying he would focus on things he could control as superintendent. He said while he thought masks should not be required, he also would focus on improving education for students instead of fighting mask orders.
Dr. Cash agreed with him, saying superintendents should focus on parts they can control. She also said if the school system spent so much time talking about masks, then they were not teaching children or helping them develop socially and emotionally.
She said she wanted schools to feel like a second home for students. To do that, she said she would focus on understanding the nuances behind student behavior and understanding where they are coming from.
That perspective would also be used in issues related to equity and discipline. She said educators should focus on understanding the unique situations students come from and their unique passions.
Meanwhile, Dr. Ryswyck said issues related to discipline in schools were complex after a question about Black students making up around 43% of all suspensions, despite also only making up around 17% of the population in KCS.
Both also said they would discuss bills from the state with lawmakers as they were being drafted, and after they were passed. Dr. Ryswyck said the school would follow the law, but if a bill harmed students, he would discuss it with state representatives. He said he brought with him several relationships with county commissioners, lawmakers and educators that could help KCS.
Meanwhile, Dr. Cash said she would work with lawmakers while the bill is developed. She said the administration could even act as a liaison between teachers and lawmakers, showing teachers upcoming legislation and asking them how they would change it to improve education.
The Board of Education is expected to interview candidates on Feb. 17 and Feb. 18 before voting for their preferred candidate on Feb. 22.