Superintendent moves from good to great in Tennessee

Superintendent moves from good to great in Tennessee

By setting a clear vision, Superintendent Jim McIntyre has made his mark at Knox County Schools
Superintendent Jim McIntyre interacts with Knox County elementary school students.

Knox County Schools is a flourishing district in Tennessee, with most of its 15 high schools having graduation rates above 90 percent. Within the last five years, the district has also has also seen modest gains in reading/language arts, math, science, and social studies as measured by the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program tests for grades 3 through 8.

“I saw many great opportunities in Knox County,” Superintendent Jim McIntyre says, recalling 2008, his first year there. “It’s the 75th largest in American metropolitan areas with a mix of urban, suburban, and rural communities rolled into one. That brings a lot of assets in terms of exposing students to diversity, but it also presented the challenge of meeting the needs of all students to be academically successful.”

In his first year, McIntyre created a five-year strategic plan, called “Excellence for All Children,” that outlined four goals: focus on the student, create effective educators, engage families and community, and create infrastructure to support student learning.

The improved test scores, stronger leadership, and an increase in funding that resulted from the plan led to McIntyre being named Tennessee’s Outstanding Superintendent of the Year for three consecutive years, from 2009 to 2011, by the state’s Parent Teacher Association. “We were a good district, but we had potential to be great,” McIntyre says. “Not only did we develop a plan to make it great, but we’ve been sticking to it.”

Family inspiration

A Boston native, McIntyre says his paternal grandparents emigrated from Ireland. After his grandfather died shortly after that, his grandmother lived in poverty with his young father. “Education literally made the difference in his life,” he says of his father, who went on to have his own career in education.

McIntyre went to Boston College where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English. In 1992, he received a master’s degree in education administration from Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., and in 1996, a master’s degree in urban affairs from Boston University. In 2003, he earned a doctorate degree in public policy from the University of Massachusetts.

Prior to becoming an administrator, McIntyre worked as a teacher at Vincent Grey Alternative High School in East St. Louis, Ill., and as an academic counselor at both Boston University and Canisius College. Then he spent 11 years at Boston Public Schools, working his way up from budget coordinator in 1998 to chief operating officer. He left the district in 2008 for Knox County.

James P. McIntyre Jr.

  • Knox County (Tenn.) Schools
  • Tenure: 5 years
  • Schools: 89
  • Student enrollment: 56,000
  • Staff and faculty: 7,400
  • Per-child expenditure: $8,479
  • Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 47%
  • Dropout rate: 5%
  • Website: knoxschools.org

Observing change

From 2006 to 2008, the Annenberg Institute of School Reform (AISR) observed Knox County’s initial reform effort. The institute, which partners with Stanford University, is a national research organization that supports education reform with a focus on urban communities.

Researcher Jacob Mishook says AISR found that before McIntyre came to the district, Knox County Schools was delivering quality academics for some students, but others needed additional pathways to graduate, such as credit recovery.

Different departments in the district’s central office also struggled to communicate, especially concerning professional development and teacher evaluations. Documents and paperwork were lost and departments “weren’t talking to one another,” Mishook says.

After arriving in Knox County, McIntyre held forums to get feedback from parents, taxpayers, teachers, and students to learn how the district could improve. This set the framework for the “Excellence for All Children” plan.

To improve academic achievement and provide more options for students, McIntyre spearheaded the construction of two new high schools. The L&N STEM Academy, a magnet high school for ninth and 10th graders, opened in downtown Knoxville in 2011. All 300 students there are given tablets rather than textbooks.

McIntyre says the success of the tablet program at L&N led to a competition in which the district’s other schools applied to earn their own 1-to-1 program. Eleven of the 28 schools that applied won the technology, and staff received training to develop new instructional strategies.

“The schools that applied for this competition had to be innovative and tell us what they could do with the technology, which resulted in great, new ideas from teachers,” he says. “It’s not only about providing new technology, it’s about what we can do with it to help struggling students.”

The other new school opened in a local mall three years ago. The Dr. Paul Kelley Volunteer Academy is a non-traditional center for about 400 juniors and seniors that need extra credits to graduate.

“There’s now a clearer vision for the district and priorities have been put in place to remedy those issues,” Mishook says. “[McIntyre] has worked very hard to raise expectations in a district that was already doing well and to help all students.”

Teacher evaluations

In 2011, the state of Tennessee introduced a new teacher and principal evaluation system in K12 districts, where 50 percent of the evaluation is based on state tests scores and 50 percent is based on teacher/principal evaluation. McIntyre says the new system was instrumental in the district’s latest academic success on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program tests.

“Part of the reason we saw considerable improvement in student academic outcomes last year was the roughly 10,000 conversations we had between teachers and state evaluators,” he says.

McIntyre has also worked to bring millions of dollars in grants to the district. By increasing academic achievement and strengthening leadership through evaluation and professional development, more vendors wanted to help the district reach the goals outlined in the five-year plan, he says.

“Because of the articulate vision and the clear direction we want the district to go, it has been very helpful in making Knox County an attractive district for grants,” he says.

Most recently, the district received a $1.2 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The money will provide Knox County School administrators with data and investment analysis tools, as well as expert advice on how to better manage and allocate the district’s financial resources. “I’m really excited about this opportunity,” McIntyre says. “This will help the district learn to spend dollars wisely to effectively support high-quality education.”

Bringing reform statewide

In 2010, then Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen invited McIntyre and three other education leaders to join him in presenting Tennessee’s Race to the Top grant proposal to the U.S. Department of Education. As a result, Tennessee was one of only two states to earn Race to The Top funds, and was awarded $501 million for school reform. The money helped schools across the state create college and career readiness programs, build data systems, and recruit and retain effective teachers and principals.

“I was absolutely honored to be asked to work with the governor and it was a great experience to work with other leaders in our state on an outstanding proposal,” McIntyre says. “The funding really acts as a catalyst for education improvement across the state of Tennessee.”

Lauren Williams is assistant editor.


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