New Knox County Schools Superintendent Jon Rysewyk shares his 'very student-focused' vision – Knoxville News Sentinel


Jon Rysewyk started at Knox County Schools as an intern at Bearden High School. Now, he’s stepping into the district’s biggest role as its new superintendent.
Rysewyk’s first day as a leader was Saturday when he replaced Bob Thomas, who took the seat in 2017.
To learn a little more about what’s in store for Knox County Schools under Rysewyk’s leadership, Knox News sat down with him for an interview.
Here’s a peek into the 48-year-old’s life and what he envisions for the future. This Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 
You have been at Knox County Schools for at least 20 years now. What’s been your biggest accomplishment?
Every place I’ve been has been exciting. I started in the system as an intern and then moved to a full-time teacher and system principal and head principal, and then different levels in the district, from supervisor to executive director to assistant superintendent. I think just being able to see each part of that in Knox County, and not just see it but live it. … To me, each one of those jobs is different, but each one is extremely important and no one is more important than the other. It’s been fun in the last 20 years to have that time to go through and see how each plays and how they connect. And I think it’s really given me a good perspective on the district. 
One of your goals is to hire more diverse teachers and staff. What’s your plan for that recruitment process?
The workforce and the applicant pool are not the same, and the traditional ways we’ve done things will not continue to work moving forward.
We have a lot of different competition out there. We know a lot of people aren’t choosing to teach coming out of college. Our primary way to bring teachers in (used to be) to go to the local universities and colleges and recruit those students. That will continue to be a focus of ours because we do get great future teachers out of those. But we’ve also got to start thinking differently, too.
Part of what we’ll look at in our human resources department is really building out that talent acquisition and how we go about doing that. There are a couple of alternative pathways we’ve already identified that we’ve piloted, so we’re going to try to build on those. Kind of the dream would be that someone with a degree who’s maybe doing something different right now could call us or come to our website and there would be one of these alternative pathways that would fit for them so they could be a teacher. I believe there are a lot of people out there who would want to teach, but they just don’t think they can.
College:Just 3 of 5 Knox County high schoolers go to college or trade school. That’s a five-year low
Is there anything you want to accomplish or get off the ground in your first six months? 
I think we’re going to focus our work on covering four areas. There will be some things that we’ll do in the first six months, but they’re all long-term horizon things. 
We want to focus on early literacy and third-grade reading percentages. Before COVID-19, we had been a little more stagnant at 40%. We want to see what we can do in that kindergarten space … I had a transition team that we worked with and gave us input, and they asked, “How can the school system work better with pre-K’s and Headstarts?” We do pre-K on our own, there’s a big price tag with it, so we can’t just expand that. But (we’re looking at) what nonprofits are in that space right now that are working with children before kindergarten, we’re looking at if there are things we can do to train and materials we can share so that by third grade, we’re ready.
Middle school math is another one of those (four areas). We know algebra one is the gateway to a lot of different careers and opportunities. As students struggle in the ninth grade in algebra, they limit a lot of their STEM possibilities and other kinds of jobs. We’re looking at our sixth through eighth-grade curriculum and what we’re doing in that space to make sure all of our students are successful in math. 
Another one of those is career empowerment and exploration. We understand the school system is the center of preparing students for the future. That’s what we do. That needs to be our target thinking from kindergarten through 12th grade so that when they graduate, they can be successful if they enlist, if they get employed, or if they enroll in postsecondary education.
Finally, success for every student. That is going to be looking at school feeder patterns that have chronically been underperforming and building out a robust plan that’s multi-year that we are committed to for a long time to raise the bar for those students.  Every student group will have equal opportunities and support so they can be successful no matter where they are or where they’re located.
You’ve been at Knox County Schools for a while now. Is there anything you think that people don’t know about you?
Things most people know about me are that I’m married and have two daughters, both who went through Knox County Schools. One is a freshman at the University of Tennessee, and one will be a junior at Central High School next year. It’s been a great experience not just being employed by Knox County but also being a parent. We’ve experienced teachers who care and administrators who want what’s best and create the best opportunities for students. I see that in my job, but it’s nice to have experienced that as a parent, too. 
We all do CrossFit. My wife is a CrossFit coach, and she runs our gym. As we’ve gotten older, that’s been our meeting place every day. We go there and unwind before finishing stuff up. 
I live on 17 acres and have three horses. I enjoy that. It’s good to still be in Knoxville but have a little bit of a nice, peaceful place to go out and do that. Those are a few things everyone may not know.
We recently learned that about 60% of Knox County graduates are going to college or technical school, which is better than the state average but still a five-year low. Do you have plans to improve that college-going rate?
Our focus is for students to be prepared to do what they need to do. You’ve seen a new push in the trades and some of those kinds of things, and most of that still requires some level of post-secondary (education). We want to make sure that students can make choices when they graduate. We don’t want the choice to be made for them based on not being prepared.
We want to make sure every student has exposure to a robust career and technical education program and robust advanced academics. We believe that should exist in every feeder pattern of high school so that it’s not a matter of not having the opportunity to take it.
College-going rates are important to us … But it’s not the end-all-be-all for us because there could be other very viable opportunities. What we don’t want to happen is the student not have that chance because they’re not prepared. 
The Knox County Board of Education shot down an equity policy earlier this year. What is your plan for reducing disparities among Knox County School students moving forward? 
We have achievement gaps that exist — that’s very well documented. It’s documented across the state as well. … In chronically underperforming feeder patterns, I think we need to write an intentional four- to-five-year strategic plan for that area. 
There are a lot of things to juggle in a community where you have a lot going on, and you have a lot of people in Knoxville willing to help. I think aligning behind a vision, what makes a difference and what will actually close the gaps for students is really on us as a school system to lay out there and help principals figure that out. I think part of that solution is looking at the entire feeder pattern. It’s not just a middle school problem, it’s not just a high school problem. We have to be thinking about it from the day they enter kindergarten to what that’s going to look like when they graduate. (We will) continue to bring in different ideas and build a strategic plan … based on research. 
Another part of that is representation. I think it’s important for us to at least have, at our teaching ranks, our school administrator ranks and district ranks, a population that mirrors our student population … and being intentional about recruiting — there’s a lot of research out there that says high-performing teachers that resemble their students have a lot of success, and we believe in that as well. We’re gonna have to find out alternative ways to go and approach people, woo them into the teaching profession, and sell the idea that this is an opportunity to change the generation. There are very few jobs that you get to impact the future of a place that you love.
What was that moment for you when you decided that you wanted to be in education and make a difference?
I would love to say that I was born teaching my G.I. Joe action figures, but that’s not true. I was a big sports guy, and I was a pre-med guy, and I loved science. But the funny story and what changed my mind is when my brother was having minor surgery to have a toenail removed, I passed out. So (being a doctor) was probably not going to happen. …
My internship at Bearden High School had great teachers that let me explore and teach and supported my growth as a teacher there. I just fell in love with it and had that chance to impact kids and get them excited around subjects … It’s been great having been around a lot of former students who come by and remind you that you had them in their class. It is a powerful way to impact the community, and I think when you take that in and you understand that, it’s great. Schools are great places to be. It’s kind of a little microcosm of the communities, and you have a family there. 
We just had this tragic school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. What’s at the top of your mind following that tragedy?
It is tragic, and it is sad. As a society, we look at those things, and we don’t have answers. Our hearts are broken for the families, teachers and principals who go through those things. There’s no place for that, I think we all agree on that. 
One thing that was encouraging was that I was able to go meet our new class of security officers and see the excitement on their faces to be able to serve and be part of what we’re going to do. Chief (Jason) Periard does a great job. He cares for his officers, he truly does. He’s also a guy who wants to partner. He’s about relationships and extending a hand to the community to get input. He’s always got ideas on how we can be better, and that continuous improvement mindset is what you want from a leader who’s over your security department.
The security folks we have in the schools are extremely important. We can put in all the cameras we want and all the fences we want, but it really comes down to officers who have great relationships with faculty and students. That was something I stressed to them … I said, “You may be the only uniformed officer that they know and they related with, and you will change their perception of that.”
What do you want people to know about how you will serve Knox County Schools? 
We exist for one reason. The reason we exist is to prepare students. That’s our role in this community. We’re going to be very student-focused. We know that’s our job … and when you have a laser focus on that, sometimes you have to say no to some things to stay focused on that mission. 
We are the one organization in town that’s job is to prepare the next generation to be successful. We’ll continue to get input, to listen to our students, to listen to trends about what students need, and continue to bring those needs to students so they can be successful. I want us to have all our decisions and resources driven toward how we can help students be successful. 
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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