LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – After holding the district’s top job since July, Jefferson County Public Schools Acting Superintendent Marty Pollio hopes the “acting” in his current title will soon be dropped.

He followed an unpopular figure in former JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens, and Pollio believes he’s made enough progress to become the district’s next superintendent.

Staff morale is climbing, and JCPS is pushing ahead with initiatives meant to improve student achievement and engagement like its “backpack of skills” program, which will track student progress in attaining academic and life skills. The district also allocated $3.5 million in next year’s budget to fund music and art classes at elementary schools.

The Jefferson County Board of Education has said it will make a decision on the next superintendent by March 1, and the board's Superintendent Screening Committee made its recommendation for the job last week but would not reveal its choice. Pollio and JCPS Chief Operations Officer Mike Raisor are the only finalists.

While he lacks Raisor’s time in central administration, Pollio, 46, touts his experience in the trenches.

He joined JCPS in 1997 as a health and social studies teacher at what was then called Shawnee High School. He later became an athletics director, an assistant principal and the principal of Jeffersontown High School in 2007 and Doss High School in 2015.

Pollio said he has the leadership and firsthand knowledge of what JCPS schools need for success.

“I think it’s pretty clear from at least our stakeholders and people around JCPS that there is a strong interest and desire to have someone who knows our schools, what’s happening in our classrooms lead our school district,” Pollio said.

“And so spending 21 years in the hallways, in the classroom with our schools and teachers and our principals I think gives me that knowledge to step right in and make significant changes and know how it impacts schools.”

JCPS has seen its share of controversy in Pollio’s time as interim superintendent.

A federal report released in August detailed allegations of abuse and neglect from staffers in the district’s Head Start program, which serves 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families and is federally funded.  The report prompted JCPS to enact a corrective action plan and to fire those accused of mistreating students.

Months later, while breaking up a fight at Jeffersontown High School, a Jeffersontown Police officer used a Taser on a student. Pollio announced in December that the district and local police departments would revisit their guidelines on policing in schools, but some in the community still question the role of police on JCPS campuses.

And then there’s the elephant in the room: a forthcoming Kentucky Department of Education audit of the district, which could lead to a state takeover of JCPS among possible interventions.

But Pollio, who earns $185,000 a year as interim superintendent, said the district is on the right track despite the recent setbacks.

He said he’s seen progress in the three areas on which he’s focused: changing the culture and climate at JCPS, increasing student learning and making the district’s organizational structure more coherent.

“Without a doubt I think all three things have significantly improved over the seven-and-a-half months that I’ve been acting superintendent,” Pollio said. “All three of them and much more have a long way to go, so we’re nowhere near where we need to be, but I am proud of the improvements that have been made.”

Among Pollio’s many supporters is Bellarmine University men’s basketball coach Scott Davenport, who has known Pollio since the interim superintendent was a teen.

Pollio has held jobs in every level at JCPS and carries that perspective into his decision-making process, Davenport said.

Davenport has also heard nothing but positive reviews of Pollio’s performance as acting superintendent, whether he talked with local school administrators while on the recruiting trail or with his neighbors who have vested interests in JCPS.

“He is the answer to this county’s needs,” Davenport told WDRB News. “From day one he’s had a plan. No different than when he was a coach or when he was an assistant principal or a principal, he has a plan, and the thing is he never gives up on young people.”

Fred Carter, executive coach with the Kentucky Association of School Administrators, has also seen Pollio grow in the nearly eight months he’s been acting superintendent.

He’s worked with Pollio and other new superintendents as part of KASA’s one-year superintendent training program, which is funded by a state grant.

Carter didn’t see any issues with JCPS hiring a former principal who has limited central office experience. He estimated that more than half of the state’s superintendents made similar professional leaps.

Being a high school principal “is one of the best training grounds you can have,” Carter said.

“He has the energy and the enthusiasm, and from my perspective in looking at the people in Jefferson County schools, he has the support of the school people by and large, so I think there’s bright days ahead there,” Carter said.

Pollio has been praised for improving student performance at Doss High, a low-performing “priority” school where he was principal from 2015 until he was named acting superintendent.

As principal, he implemented four academy tracks for Doss students – one specifically for freshmen – and embraced project-based learning throughout the school, according to a Kentucky Department of Education diagnostic review published in January 2017.

Proficient and distinguished scores by Doss students on state exams during the 2015-16 school year jumped in nearly every category from the previous year – up 12.8 percentage points in English, 20.8 percentage points in algebra and 9.5 percentage points in U.S. history, according to KDE data.

The only subject that showed a decline in proficient and distinguished scores among Doss students was biology, where top scores dropped by 4.5 percentage points.

Many of the scores Pollio is credited with raising at Doss dipped in the following school year, right before his promotion to the central office.

Proficient and distinguished scores among Doss students on year-end state tests declined by 5.8 percentage points in English, 21.8 percentage points in algebra and 5.9 percentage points in U.S. history. Proficient and distinguished scores improved in biology, however, by 9.8 percentage points during the 2016-17 school year.

“There’s no doubt that it’s a challenge when you have very large jumps to then build on that in the second year, so I’ve said from the very beginning what you want is consistent, long-term growth,” Pollio said, adding that he was “very proud” of the work to improve achievement at Doss.

Whoever becomes the next JCPS superintendent will have to answer to high-profile external critics.

During his Jan. 16 budget address, Gov. Matt Bevin repeatedly singled out JCPS. At one point, Bevin suggested that the district should trim its administrative costs given the number of six-figure salaries on JCPS’s payroll.

Pollio said he would like to take a closer look at the structure within the central office to determine how effectively administrative positions support schools and teachers.

“If we can’t identify every single person and how they support teaching, then we’ve got to take a look at that position and say we might need to repurpose it,” he said. “… When we do that and achievement improves and student learning improves, then I think it removes that narrative about ‘central office high-paying positions that aren’t impacting student learning.’”

Recently, JCPS appears to have become the target of a private group of business and community leaders called the Steering Committee for Action on Louisville’s Agenda.

That group has said JCPS hasn’t adequately prepared graduates for work or college and commissioned a report last year that advocated for more autonomy for the district’s superintendent.

No one from the district is involved with the group, and Pollio said he wasn’t sure whether he would accept an invitation to join if he’s the next superintendent, although he said JCPS “should have a seat at the table for any discussion around how we’re going to move forward as a school district.”

While JCPS has many issues to confront in the months and years ahead, Pollio said he would relish the opportunity to help put the district on the right path. 

For Pollio, the superintendent vacancy at JCPS is more than a job opportunity and the culmination of a 21-year career in the district – it’s “a calling.”

“What I want more than anything is no matter when I exit this position – if it’s two or three weeks from now or if it’s several years from now when I’m no longer the superintendent of JCPS – I want this community to take pride in our public school system, that we take pride in the work that we are doing and everyone knows the work that we are doing,” Pollio said.

“… It’s incumbent that we have a leader that really brings passion to this role, inspires workers and knows what’s happening in our schools, and in several years we can say this school district is in a much better place than it was several years ago.”

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and kwheatley@wdrb.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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