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    JCPS' interim superintendent Marty Pollio discusses the district's new path.

    Photo by Mickie Winters

    “Got all these shelves,” says Jefferson County Public Schools interim superintendent Marty Pollio. “I don’t have anything to put on all these shelves.” It’s July 3, Pollio’s first official day on the job, and the walls in his office, at the VanHoose Education Center on Newburg Road, are bare, save for a few dated family photos. “Not a whiteboard in this place. I like whiteboards everywhere so I can write my thoughts on the board. I’m a visual type and like thinking that way.”

    While the interim position could last six to nine months, unless the board decides to hire Pollio permanently, he’s not showing any signs of being a placeholder. Following his mid-May promotion from principal at Doss High School, he spent a month and a half meeting with influential school insiders, including politicians, businesspeople and his predecessor, Donna Hargens, who announced her resignation in April and officially stepped down July 1. 

    Having worked in JCPS for 20 years, Pollio knows a lot going into the job. The 46-year-old taught at several high schools before becoming principal at Jeffersontown High and then, two years ago, at struggling Doss. The year he came to Doss, 98 percent of teachers and staff said in an end-of-year survey that their supervisor provided effective leadership, up from 66 percent the previous year. Meanwhile, 44 percent of JCPS teachers and staff said the same about Hargens and her administrative staff. 

    In Pollio’s new role, the stakes are higher. He's overseeing 101,000 students, up from 1,100 at Doss. JCPS is in the midst of a thorough state audit for possible mismanagement of funds. The district has close to a 30 percent achievement gap between white and black students. Charter schools are on the horizon. The list goes on.

    One of the first things Pollio tells me is that he likes to simplify things. Yet, his early ambitions seem exhausting: bi-weekly press briefings to improve communication with the public; dedicated school visits three days a week; a weekly online video series in which he spends several minutes updating the public on advancements he’s made, which in the first week will include hiring a chief academic officer and the announcement that he will not fill the vacant chief business officer position and instead will direct that six-figure salary to teacher resources. All this while bonding with the staff in the five-floor VanHoose Education Center, an effort Pollio weaves seamlessly into his workday, charming those he encounters, according to several staff and teachers I’ve talked to who are excited to see where he takes the district. “I know that people in this building were surprised to see me walking around and interacting with people,” Pollio says. “I guess that’s something that hasn’t happened before. They look at me like: What do you need? I say, ‘I’m just seeing how you’re doing. What’s going on?’ I just don’t feel my job is to sit in an office and sit up here.”

     

    You’ve spent several weeks with district insiders, including Donna Hargens. What have you learned so far?

    “I’m a person who tries to simplify things. I try to say, ‘Let’s find a few things that we can get better at immediately.’ As I’ve said many times, it’s clear that culture, climate and morale are big issues in this organization. I felt like that being inside the organization. The survey data I’ve seen, it’s very clear that that’s a huge issue. That became an important point with me interviewing with the board members. I’m a big believer that in a school, it only works if there’s a healthy academic climate and positive culture. If that’s not there, then the school won’t be successful.”

     

    A lot of those things are why people were pushing Donna Hargens to resign. Do you feel those criticisms were fair?

    “I think it would be unfair of me to criticize her for her job performance. That’s not my role. That’s board members’ role to evaluate superintendents and make decisions about them. I think it’s fairly clear that they were not pleased with some of those issues in our district. I can say that I think that’s why they selected me. I have a track record in schools for turning around the climate and cultures, having positive teacher retention, positive survey results.”

     

    How do you improve climate in a school? What’s your method?

    “School culture and climate are two different things that work together. I’ve always felt that culture is the belief systems of the adults in the building and how that relates to students and student learning and student achievement. And then the climate is everything that happens on a daily basis in the classrooms, the hallways, and I think that leads to morale.

    “I’ve tried to create an atmosphere based on these four things — the first one being that the people in the organization, the workers, whatever that job is, they have the tools and professional development they need to be successful and they feel supported. The second thing is that there is a team atmosphere and a mutual trust and respect at the school between administration and teachers. We’re all on the same page, but we trust a certain leader and we know that they have everyone in the organization’s best interests at heart. The third big thing that I always talk about is that the organization is moving in the right direction. Usually a yes or no thing. The last thing is common mission and vision, a belief that we are here for a greater purpose than just to show up and my 150 students show up, or my 30 I have in elementary — whatever it is. We have 155 schools, 155 principals. Without 155 great principals doing those four things, we won’t be successful.”

     

    How many current principals do you have confidence in to do that?

    “We don’t have an opportunity to collaborate with other principals enough. That’s one of the things I want to break down. As a principal, I can’t say that I know the job performance of the principal down the road. I’ve got the school survey data that present some great stories, like that we have found a school knocking it out of the park. We need to replicate that and figure out what they’re doing well, which I don’t think we’ve done.

    “Meanwhile, I have some concerns, but I don’t think I can judge just based on that one year — maybe it was a down year. A big part of that is using eyes to confirm data. It’s incumbent on me and my team to be in schools to see and evaluate the culture and climate on our own. Right now, about 60 percent of our principals have about three years experience or less. We have to do a better job of development of our personnel. Just like teachers, principals need professional development too. That’s something we have to do before we get into the heart of: This one’s doing it or this one isn’t.”

     

    A lot of teachers I’ve spoken to stress discipline as something they’re concerned about — behavioral issues, kids who interrupt class. What kind of support do you give them? How do you turn it around?

    “As a principal, I had 1,100 teenagers at one location. Anytime you gather five teenagers, you could have problems. But with any age, with children, you will have issues. Having said that, I believe it can be done. This past year, I believe it was close to 81 percent of the teachers at Doss High School said the students follow the rules of behavior at the school. Doss is a high-needs, at-risk population of kids.

    “We have to do a better job in the central office of supporting schools in discipline and behavior management. Also, I believe that the better the instruction — the more relevant that instruction, the more deeper-learning concepts a teacher implements in the classroom, the more kids are doing real-world, real-life stuff — the better engaged students will be. The more engaged students are, the less behavior issues you’ll have. I don’t want to put it all on teachers because that’s not the case. The reason Doss was successful was twofold. Number one, we improved the instructional ability of our teachers in the classroom, and more importantly, we had systems and structures in the school that supported teachers day after day, every single day, 175 days of the year. We have to spread that to every school in order to be successful.”

     

    You mentioned deeper learning, which the district committed to last year. Explain that a bit more.

    “I’m a huge proponent of deeper-learning concepts. What we did at Doss was project-based learning, which is one type of deeper-learning measure or instructional strategy. The teacher takes a standard or a group of standards and essentially teaches the students the skill with a hands-on project that allows the student to demonstrate their learning, apply their learning in a real-world setting. 

    “I will give you an example. In a chemistry class at Doss last year, on an environmental science unit on environmental threats, instead of just teaching the various environmental threats, students had to use their knowledge that they had in chemistry and identify an environmental issue that related personally to them. Then they had to study that issue, develop a plan on how they would address that issue, and then, in a science fair-type atmosphere, we had adults come in and essentially (pose as) donors and the students had to convince them that this was the environmental issue that someone should donate money to. Some students took air quality, some took water quality, some took lead paint in the home, some took plastic bottles. Instead of saying, ‘I’m going to teach you these concepts and then give you a multiple-choice test in the end,’ you saw the passion increase out of students.”

     

    How do you implement these concepts in 155 schools?

    “I’m not going to say that there is an easy answer to that. There are 16,000 employees. Number one, I have to have a great team around me and trust them, tell them what I want to see, get them all on the same page working together and ensure that they are spreading that throughout the school or organization. If one administrator was in a classroom and helping a teacher, they were spreading the same message to that teacher and saying the same thing I would say. At the central office, it has to be the same concept. Our assistant superintendents, I’ve got to empower them to send the same message I would to their 25 schools, but also giving really good oversight to make sure it’s happening. I don’t think the concept’s any different. Those four things I talked about earlier have to be the same for this group and then spreading it out to the schools. What we’ve done in the past is thought school by school. We need to think systemically. We need to be a school district and not just a district of schools.” 

     

    At Doss, you mentioned how the achievement scores went up, the feedback from teachers improved. JCPS hasn’t yet released the numbers from last school year, but suspensions for 2015-2016 at Doss, your first year there, were in the 600s, one of the highest numbers of any high school in JCPS. Is that a necessary evil to cracking down on behavior or something that can also be improved?

    “We had high expectations for students. What I will tell you is, when you look at this year’s number, it dropped by somewhere between 18 and 22 percent. I don’t know what the final number was, but we went from being in the top five to — my guess is we went down to the 10th, 11th or 12th, somewhere in that range in high school suspensions. We let students know in many ways that we are going to have a positive and healthy academic climate in the school. Our kids at Doss deserve that just as much as the kids at any other school in this district. They had had a belief at that school before that the expectations weren’t as high as, say, a Manual or a Male. We had to change that.”

     

    One student told a reporter that you were “strict in a good way.” You really gained their respect. How do you do that?

    “Well, I’m glad that student saw that. I have always gone with the premise that, first of all, I have a very important job to do as a high school principal. We only have our kids at high school — or whatever level you’re at — for a certain amount of minutes. I told our staff we have them for 175 school days for four years. When they are done with us, that’s it for their official mandated education through public education. This is our last chance to get them. Kids would sometimes get on me for not smiling or laughing, but I was very serious about the job that I did. I believe that we have to be the models of professionalism for our students. I think the students felt that we set the same expectations for the staff. When you have expectations for staff that are as high as, if not higher than, that of the students, students respect that. I think students have a problem when they see a disparity between the expectations of staff and the expectations of students.”

     

    Are you from here?

    “I was actually born here, but I moved away when I was six months old. My dad was a college basketball coach, so we moved around my entire childhood. About every four years, he took a different job. I went to high school in Richmond, Virginia. Went to Indiana University in Bloomington, and when I got into teaching I came to Louisville.”

     

    Did you go to public school for K through 12?

    “I went to public school in high school. Prior to that I had been in a Catholic school.”

     

    What was your high school experience like?

    “Gosh, it seems so long ago. I would tell anybody this: I had a very positive school experience where I felt a belonging to the school. I was a basketball player but also felt I was a part of the school culture. That’s what I’ve tried to create in the high schools I’ve developed. Also, a lot of the structure I received was very traditional — textbook, worksheet-driven. I always felt, being in those classrooms, I wanted to have the opportunity to provide kids with the experience that was more relevant to real-world opportunities, things that they would use throughout their life.”

     

    Is going to IU how you started working for Bobby Knight (as a student manager)?

    “I wanted to be a college basketball player, but to be honest I was small and pretty slow. I was a decent high school basketball player, but I wasn’t great, even though I worked very hard at it. I could have played at a couple of small schools, but I felt I would just be a coach’s son who was on a team because of that. Instead, I decided I was gonna learn to be a basketball coach, so that’s why I went to Indiana University and worked for coach Knight as a manager. I was a student manager there for four years while majoring in education because you couldn’t major in college basketball coaching. Came to realize I love that part of it in the end, which I wasn’t expecting.”

     

    What did you learn from Knight?

    “I tell people the main thing I learned, what he was so great at, was deciding: We are going to be good — not just good — we are going to be great at a few things. Too many people in too many organizations try to be good at a whole lot of things, and what they end up doing is being mediocre at all of them. He was a huge proponent of: We are going to do three or four things. We are going to do them very well. We’re gonna practice it over and over and over again. We’re gonna select and recruit people that are gonna fit our belief system and we are going to be great at it. And that’s what made him great.”

     

    You have a daughter. What grade will she be in?

    “Seventh grade.”

     

    And she’s in JCPS?

    “Correct.”

     

    How did you decide whether to put her in public schools and which ones? How did you navigate that as a parent?

    “My wife and I, we’re big believers in public schools and exposing our daughter to diversity and all the things that come with that. Obviously, being a part of Jefferson County Public Schools made me believe that this is definitely the right path for my daughter. We went through the same experiences now twice that every other parent in this community goes through. I got no special treatment along the way because I was a principal. We filled out the applications like everybody else did. We went through open houses and the Showcase of Schools, just like every other parent. We live in the Highlands and our two resides schools for her for elementary were Bloom and Hawthorne, and at that time we had heard from many people that Bloom was the school to go to. We actually visited Hawthorne and were blown away by the Spanish-immersion program and made the decision that we would like to send our child there. She is now bilingual in Spanish and English as a result of it. It gives me a very intimate understanding of what it takes as a parent going through that process, wanting what’s best for your child.” 

     

    There are kids whose families aren’t happy with any of their resides school options and are unable to get into the magnet of their choice. Is there anything you’d like to change about this process?

    “I can’t speak to specifics exactly. I will say this: When we were applying, the common narrative in the community was the school we chose was not the school to go to. Instead of hearing it from others, we went and visited and were extremely pleased with what we saw taking place. Having said that, we’re gonna have to explore student assignment and find ways to make it better. The difficult part is there is no way that makes everyone happy.”

     

    What do you do to address parental involvement — or lack thereof?

    “Well, there are two ways that we have to look at it. The teachers at Doss would tell you I use this a lot — it’s called a TBU. It’s ‘true but useless.’ If a teacher, staff member, administrator — if anybody’s making excuses about our job based on something we can’t control, we’ll say, ‘It’s true but useless.’ If a teacher says, ‘The kid came to me and does not have the skills that they should have to be successful in my classroom,’ I would say it’s a TBU. There’s nothing we can do about that at this point. All we can worry about is what we have right in front of us right now. So yes, parent involvement definitely leads to higher levels of success for children. I believe there’s plenty of research to show that. But in many instances at the school level, we can’t necessarily control that. We have to give a child every opportunity to be successful no matter what. Having said that, we have to engage the parents as much as absolutely possible and give them every opportunity to be involved in the school community.”

     

    Charter schools can now get the green light from the mayor and the school board. What say would you have in that?

    “We’re still waiting for clarification from the Kentucky Department of Education on how that process will look. I know we will have some say in it, which is important. It is clear that in the future we will have charter schools in this community. The only way I can look at it right now is, first of all, any school that is positively affecting student achievement I would support if they have a history of doing that and are measured in the same way our regular schools are measured. But my job will be to have 155 great schools. I believe if we develop and improve all of our 155 schools then we won’t need any charter schools.”

     

    The Males of Color middle school was recently approved and is scheduled to open for the 2018-2019 school year. What do you think that school can achieve?

    “What I think it can and will do is take 450 students that will predominantly come from our minority at-risk population of males, and we will see great numbers of success out of those students. I wouldn’t have supported it if I didn’t think it could do that. I wasn’t a part of the planning and the two-year process, but what I saw in the data in the end showed me that it can be successful if implemented properly. My job will be to make sure that happens. But more importantly, I want it to be a model for how we can improve the achievement gap, because we do have an achievement gap in this community and in many communities across this country right now, especially in our urban core. Every high school that I’ve been in has been over 50 percent minority. If we’re gonna move this district forward, we have to move in ways that will overcome this achievement gap. We have to systemically find a way to do that with all of our students. I think it’s symbolic in nature that we say we are willing to try new things to reduce that achievement gap. It’s not the only thing. It doesn’t solve the problem. I think it’s one step in getting us closer to doing that.”

     

    Should teachers be worried about their pensions, and do you worry that lack of funding might not attract teachers?

    “I do not have the expertise to comment on that. I always stand up and am very adamant when people think that teaching is an easy job or not worthy of the appropriate level of pay, including pension. Our teachers, the vast majority of them, work their tails off. The vast majority of the people in this organization work their tails off and they deserve to be paid and compensated appropriately. I hope that it is addressed at the state level.”

     

    JCPS seems to be a target a lot in the press. What kind of heat do you think JCPS and superintendents inevitably get?

    “We’re dealing with lives and children here, so it’s very personal. We have 16,000 employees. We have 101,000 students, multiple family members, so you’re talking a large percentage of this city has a direct connection to Jefferson County Public Schools. Decisions are gonna be tough ones that many times don’t just have an easy answer. But we are committed to making sure all 101,000 students are successful. We as an organization have to accept responsibility of the things that we aren’t doing as well, champion those things that we do well and lay out an effective plan for getting better.”

     

    What do you imagine your day-to-day will look like in these next few months?

    “An important part of this job is being visible, talking to people, spreading a message of what we’re doing and where we’re going. Of course, I believe that unless you systemize something it won’t happen. It’s very easy for me to say I’m going to be in schools a lot, but unless I get with (communications director) Allison (Martin) and say, ‘Three days a week we’re going to schools, set me up a schedule, get it on my calendar,’ we will not be in schools enough. I think it is very important not to just go to a school and go to a meeting and stop in the principal’s office, but be in classrooms, talk to teachers, talk to kids, go to the cafeteria, be on a bus. All of those things are things that we have employees do every day. I’ve got to do the same thing.”

     

    Have you ridden school buses as a principal?

    “It’s been awhile, I’ll be honest. But I think it’s something that I need to do.”

     

    How did you mentally prepare for this kind of demanding job?

    “When I first was faced with taking the job, I had some sleepless nights. Do I really want to do this? But my dad told me a long time ago to not ever listen to the inner voice when you get a new job that says you can’t do something, because if you believe you can, do it. You question that — the size of the job, the scope. But what I do know and believe is that the morale of our organization is low. It needs a lot of leadership, and I came to the conclusion that I’m the right person to do the job and will be successful at it like at every other job I’ve taken. I’m from this community, I’m about this community and Jefferson County Public Schools, so who better to do it than me?”

     

    Day to day, how do you physically prepare for everyday challenges?

    “I’m a runner. I run a lot and I’ve got to continue to do that. I’ve noticed it has become more difficult at this time. I’ve always said I do my best thinking when I’m running. I’m going to have to figure out the best way to operate so I’m still accessible and still in schools when the school year starts.”

     

    Where will you be on the first day of school (which for students is Aug. 10)?

    “Definitely in schools. We’ll have a plan soon of what those schools will be — about seven schools. Everybody’s in school on the first day. My challenge will be to do it the fourth day, eighth day, 120th day and so on. Doing that more often is going to be critical for me.”

     

    Communications director Allison Martin chimes in, mentioning that, on the first day of school, Pollio’s morning will start at 5 a.m. 

    Pollio: “That’s good.”

    Martin: “He makes two visits in the morning, eats lunch in a school. It’s a scheduling matrix.” 

     

    They have a helicopter for you?

    Pollio: “I like that idea!”

     

    This originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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