SUNDAY EDITION | As JCPS interim superintendent, Marty Pollio aims to improve culture, climate and achievement

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – It was business as usual for Marty Pollio just days after he was named the interim superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools.

He walked the hallways of Doss High – a school he has led for the past two years – while also popping into classrooms and chatting with students as he prepares for his new job leading the state’s largest school district.

“Tell me what you’re working on, what’s your assignment?” he asked Ja'Nae Jackson, prompting the junior to explain the research she’s conducted on key U.S. Supreme Court cases. 

When the 17-year-old told him she selected Brown vs. Board of Education as her project, Pollio spent several minutes asking her about the historic case that ended segregation in American schools.

"I like that he checks in on us, it shows that he cares," Ja'Nae said. "He along with my teachers -- I know they are giving me facts and making me think harder about the work I am doing."

A few minutes later, Pollio visited Sara Dalton’s freshman English class and asked her students if they are ready for final exams, which will take place this week.

It’s a style Pollio, 45, plans to bring to the school system’s top job, when he takes over the district on July 2 from Donna Hargens, who announced her resignation last month.

“I think that I will be a superintendent like I am a principal,” he said. “I've always been very hands-on and very active, very present ... not micromanaging but I also want to make sure I am involved in all major decisions, because at the end of the day, I am the one responsible.”

In his 20th year with JCPS, Pollio has risen from a social studies teacher and high school basketball coach to principal of Doss, which has been one of the state’s lowest-performing schools. Since he took over in 2015, the school has boosted its proficiency rates in reading and math to their highest levels in four years.

By state law, interim superintendents can’t serve longer than nine months. And while the JCPS board has in the recent past chosen out-of-state candidates for the top job, Pollio has made it clear he is interested in pursuing the job permanently – and board members say he will be allowed to apply.

In an interview with WDRB News last week, Pollio said he’s not taking the interim post to be “just a placeholder or signing payroll.”

“I wanted to make sure I was being hired to move this district forward, to improve climate and culture, improve morale of staff and most importantly, improve student achievement,” he said.

'He's fair and supportive'

The son of teacher and a teacher who became a college basketball coach, Pollio spent the first two years of his career working at Eastern Kentucky University.

He started working at JCPS in 1997 as a teacher and coach at Shawnee High. He was a teacher and athletic director at Waggener High from 1998 to 2004 and spent 2004 to 2007 as an assistant principal at Waggener, before being named the principal at Jeffersontown High.

In his seven years at Jeffersontown, he focused on achievement and boosting the school’s career and technical programs, as well as dealing with a growing student population.

Hargens named Pollio the principal of Doss High in July 2015. He said leaving Jeffersontown was "one of the toughest decisions in my professional career” but that he wanted to work with more disadvantaged students.

He also had to fill more than two dozen teaching and other staff positions in a very short period of time.

In the past two years, Pollio has helped the school post academic gains. During the 2015-16 year, Doss posted the highest proficiency rates in reading and math that the school had seen since 2011.

A state audit released in January said Pollio has made "major strides to cultivate a positive school culture, improve student behavior, enhance student engagement and improve instructional priorities."

And according to results released last week from the state's 2017 TELL survey, morale and managing student behavior at Doss have dramatically improved. The survey allows all teachers to anonymously provide input at their schools.

In it, 86 percent of Doss teachers said the school is a good place to work and learn, a 24 percentage point increase from 2015. And 93 percent agreed that the school’s leadership consistently supports teachers, up from 53 percent in 2015.

“He’s fair and very supportive,” Dalton said. “It’s kind of a bittersweet moment to know we are going to lose him, he’s doing such great things, we have really been moving in the right direction here.”

Dalton, who began teaching at Doss the same year Pollio arrived as principal, describes her boss as being “intense” and “passionate.”

“He is someone who knows what he wants and knows how to get it by instilling in his teachers and staff what he expects,” she said. “With students, he encourages that same level of respect, engagement and discipline. He’s very no-nonsense and I think that’s what makes him so good as a principal and why he’ll be a great superintendent.”

Ja'Nae says her freshman year at Doss with the school's previous principal was rough.

"Dr. Pollio made everything better at Doss," she said. "He’s strict but he’s good and I think a lot of people respect him for that."

Improving culture and climate 

Speaking to WDRB, Pollio said the “most important thing” at JCPS is improving the culture of the entire organization.

“A very important part of ensuring that student achievement occurs is the culture within a school,” he said. “Without great culture and climate in our schools, achievement will not follow so we can't separate the two.”

Turmoil over low morale, how the district has handled student discipline and behavior issues and low student achievement at some schools are some of the reasons why the school board and Hargens – who has been superintendent of JCPS since 2011 – decided to part ways.

Pollio said student management and behavior are “only a small part” of improving culture and climate.

“A bigger part is boosting the morale of all of the workers – everyone from teachers, bus drivers and clerks to administrators and central office personnel,” he said. “I do believe that the culture and morale go hand in hand and they both have to be addressed right away.”

Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, said “morale is really an important issue.”

“And if you look at the schools where Marty has been principal, they have very high morale,” McKim said. “In addition, Dr. Pollio is a respected instructional leader across the district.”

Pollio says he did not "seek out" the interim position – he was contacted by the district’s legal counsel and asked if he’d be interesting in sending his resume to board members.

“Although it may be unorthodox for the board to select an acting superintendent who is currently a principal, I truly believe I am the right person for this district at the right time,” he said.

He added: “I bring to this position 20 years of experience in JCPS.”

“I am like many of the great teachers, administrators and support staff who have spent the majority of their professional career committed to the students, committed to the success of the students of JCPS,” Pollio said.

In naming Pollio the school board’s top choice, JCPS school board chairman Chris Brady said “these are unorthodox times, so sometimes it requires an unorthodox decision.”

“During this process (of selecting an interim), it became clear ... Marty is the right person for the job,” Brady said. “He's a proven leader who is respected by his peers and he has the skills needed to continue moving our district forward.”

John Stovall, president of Teamsters Local 783, said tapping Pollio for the job is a “step in the right direction.”

“I think this will be a big step in helping heal the district,” Stovall said. “For years, Dr. Pollio has demonstrated his leadership abilities and I look forward to working with him to help right the ship.”

Aside from being a longtime district employee, Pollio is also a parent. His daughter attended Hawthorne Elementary School and is currently a sixth grader at Noe Middle School.

“Like many other parents, my wife and I have struggled twice with the decision of where our daughter should attend school, first with kindergarten and then with middle school,” he said. “Even though I’m a principal and now acting superintendent, I am no different than any other parent in this community who wants the best for their child.”

Pollio said he wants JCPS to succeed and for “our students, employees, parents and this community to be proud of our schools.”

He plans to work closely with principals and assistant superintendents to provide them with support, adding that he believes he has the respect of a lot of the district’s principals because “there is the feeling of someone who has been on the ground and knows the struggles and challenges we face.”

Indeed, within the first 24 hours of the announcement, Pollio said he was flooded with emails and text messages of support from across the district. Those messages continued to come in later in the week.

Pollio said he believes in the power of leadership at each school.

“Having 155 great principals is what we have to strive for as a district -- all with the same mission and vision working together,” he said. “That's how important I think the principal is to the success of a school, its culture, climate and student achievement.”

One day at a time

As interim superintendent, Pollio, will earn a daily rate that is equivalent to $185,000 annually. His current salary as a principal is $150,000.

The last time JCPS had an interim superintendent was in July 2011 when retired district administrator Freda Merriweather stepped in for a month between the tenures of former superintendent Sheldon Berman and Hargens.

Pollio is expected to serve much longer as the school board will now move to find a permanent replacement for Hargens. Under state law, an acting or interim superintendent is limited to a 6-month appointment that can be renewed for an additional 3-month term.

On Tuesday, Brady said “the process for choosing a superintendent will be much more robust” than the process for selecting an interim.

“We are going to make every effort to be able to provide ample opportunities for the community to give feedback and ask questions and be part of the decision-making process,” he said.

Until then, Pollio is in charge. When asked how much change he thinks he can make in a six to nine month time frame, he said he will take it one day at a time.

“That’s a good question, I don't think I can tackle this job as a six or nine month job," he said. "It may very well end up being that way -- but most importantly I have to take every day like this is the most important job until they ask me not to do it.”

He added: “Turning any organization or making improvements or making a difference, especially when you are talking about an organization this size is going to take time.”

“But that doesn’t mean great things can’t happen in six or nine months,” Pollio said.

Reporter Antoinette "Toni" Konz can be reached at 585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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