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Weekend edition October 13, 2023 | Tom Ballard

Knox Education Foundation is the R&D arm of Knox County Schools

CEO Mike Taylor says, "We fund things that improve outcomes for students. They are the ultimate beneficiaries of the work we do.”

Mike Taylor says that he decided 15 years ago to dedicate himself to the education foundation industry.

Today, the Oak Ridge native, who had already spent most of his professional life in nonprofit work, is leading the Knox Education Foundation (KEF) as its Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Selected for the role in late October 2022, Taylor started on January 2, bringing a strong track record of success to the organization with a mission of being a catalyst for the transformation of public education. It does so by investing in and advocating for innovative programs, partnerships, and initiatives to achieve excellent outcomes for all students.

Mike Taylor

“We’re the Research & Development arm of the (Knox County) school system,” Taylor says, drawing a comparison with a seed or early-stage investor in new and promising innovations. “We’re less focused on program delivery and more into what makes a difference.”

He adds, “We fund things that improve outcomes for students. They are the ultimate beneficiaries of the work we do.” Taylor notes that KEF’s “student first approach” involves aligning two critical areas: what is good for students with initiatives that the community and financial supporters value.

One of those is The 865 Academies, which began with a community conversation about college and career preparedness and equipping students for life after graduation. Convened and funded by KEF before Taylor was selected, the first cohort of 865 Academies was launched last fall at eight high schools. Two more were launched this year, and the final four will begin in the fall of 2024.

The career-themed programs allow students to:

  • Participate in authentic, work-based learning.
  • Receive opportunities for job shadows and other career exploration activities.
  • Work closely with professionals in their field of interest; and
  • Create stronger connections between classroom knowledge and workplace success.

For those not familiar with the Foundation, it was created through the 2020 merger of the Great Schools Partnership Trust and Project GRAD Knoxville. In July, the Community Schools initiative managed by Great Schools Partnership transitioned to the United Way of Greater Knoxville, while Project GRAD remained with KEF and is focused on family engagement and supporting students with the transition from high school to post-secondary opportunities. The goal of the consolidation was to create a robust public-private partnership designed to enhance vital programs at Knox County Schools, strengthen academic achievement, and help students reach their fullest potential to be successful in school, the workforce, and life.

Early in our interview, Taylor emphasized the importance he placed on the concept of total quality management . . . “What’s the problem and how do we solve it?” Later, he shared KEF’s five priorities which illustrate how he and the Board of Directors, which includes PYA colleagues Larsen Jay as Chair and Carol Carden as Treasurer, are executing the plan.

Topping the list of priorities is a big bucket – Data, Analytics, and Innovation – which, in practice, means using collaborative research to provide data to inform decision-making for both the Foundation and the school district with a focus on impact and outcomes. Other current priorities include:

  • Student and Family Support: Funding district-wide, whole school, classroom, and student support projects through initiatives like the Knox Opportunity Fund and Project GRAD which provides assistance to students at Austin-East and Fulton High Schools.
  • Educational Initiatives and Educator Development: Supporting activities that strengthen learning environments and support educators to improve academic outcomes.
  • Career Development, Workforce, and College Readiness: Supporting college and career access initiatives leading to successful transition to post-secondary education and employment opportunities.
  • Fundraising and Events: Building a culture of giving to support public education.

No doubt one of the key attributes that attracted KEF’s Search Committee was Taylor’s track record as CEO of the Henrico Education Foundation in Richmond, VA, a position he held for eight years. When he started, the budget was $475,000, growing to $10.4 million when he left for Knox County.

Earlier this year, Taylor was elected Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Education Foundations

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