LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Some are gearing up for their first days as teachers after landing jobs at Jefferson County Public Schools while others are bringing years of experience to Kentucky’s largest school district.

But the message from JCPS leaders during Thursday’s orientation for about 325 new teachers was clear: Embrace every opportunity you have to make a meaningful difference in kids’ lives.

“You have the opportunity to impact maybe 1,000 kids every single day, and the small interactions that you have can make all the difference in the world,” JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said in his opening remarks at the Crowne Plaza hotel.

Amid a teacher shortage that has affected not only JCPS but school districts across the state, Pollio hopes many of those new educators will remain among the district’s teaching ranks in the years ahead.

Pollio, who started his career as a social studies teacher at the Academy @ Shawnee in 1997, understands the trials that await first-year teachers joining JCPS. The first couple of years are “the most challenging,” he said, and his advice to them is to focus on their efforts to improve the lives of their students.

Retaining those educators will be “critical,” he said, noting that the district recently added a position focused on teacher retention with an emphasis of keeping new teachers in the classroom.

“We always focus on teacher hiring, which is an important part of that, but we’ve got to improve retention,” Pollio told reporters after his remarks. “So if we lose 30% of these teachers in the first five years, those are teachers we have to replace that contribute to the teacher shortage nationwide. But if we keep 90% of them in the first five years, that makes our job that much easier and plus now we have veteran teachers who are staying with us.”

The district’s retention efforts dovetail with its push to bring more minority teachers to JCPS through a partnership with Simmons College of Kentucky, a historically black school, and a potential residency program to develop new teachers that’s been discussed by the Jefferson County Board of Education.

The Kentucky Department of Education has also launched an initiative to inform those interested in the teaching profession about available opportunities to obtain an alternative certification called Go Teach KY. 

Those who are joining JCPS in the upcoming school year gave myriad reasons why they chose to start or continue their education careers with Kentucky’s largest school district.

Erin Jarrett, who has been hired as a mental health practitioner and previously worked for Greater Clark County Schools in Jeffersonville, Ind., said JCPS appealed to her in part because of its focus on helping students who have experienced trauma in their lives.

She sees the district, which more than doubled its number of mental health practitioners to provide greater access to such services for its students, as a “trendsetter” compared to other school districts in that regard.

“Our kiddos are going through so much trauma, and so to have a collaborative community of teachers, mental health practitioners, staff and stakeholders altogether come together for the kids, that’s important,” said Jarrett, who will work in Jacob Elementary and Gutermuth Elementary. “It’s an all-encompassing type of educational environment, and that’s what really attracted me to JCPS.”

For others, the allure of better pay and benefits brought them to JCPS. That’s what attracted William Flinn, a fourth-grade teacher at Maupin Elementary, to the district from a local private school.

“Just to be able to better take care of my family financially in the future, that’s one of the big draws for me,” said Flinn, who’s entering his 14th year teaching.

Opinions on what can be done to help recruit more teachers into the profession also vary.

Koby Clark, who is entering his first year as a business teacher for sophomore and juniors at Valley High after spending about 15 years on the support staff at Southern High, says reaching those who are passionate about working with and educating kids is a key component to getting more teachers into Kentucky classrooms.

Clark, who also coaches football, track and chess, says he’s eager for the chance to work on a more individual basis with students.

“If they don’t have a passion for teaching kids, it’s not for them,” Clark said. “… When you follow your heart, everything else comes easy with it.”

Thomas Brennan, who teaches civics for juniors and seniors at Pleasure Ridge Park High and joined JCPS late last year from Fayette County Public Schools, says offering a supportive environment for teachers can help draw more people to careers in education.

“People need to be paid adequately, but they need to be respected as well,” said Brennan, who has been a teacher for 15 years. “As of right now we have an administration within our state government that basically tears down teachers and doesn’t look at them in the best light, especially public school teachers.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story referenced the number of teaching jobs posted by JCPS and other school districts across Kentucky, according to a statewide employment database. Those postings do not reflect current vacancies, according to the Kentucky Department of Education.

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