LOUISVILLE, Ky (WDRB) -- Jefferson County Public Schools kicked off the 2019-20 school year Wednesday, welcoming nearly 100,000 new and returning students into classrooms throughout Kentucky's largest school district.

"I'm not going to say this is the Super Bowl for us, but it's pretty close," Marion C. Moore School Principal Robert Fulk said as buses dropped kids off at the school.

This year will be a critical one for JCPS, which is nearly a year into a corrective action plan to fix issues raised in an audit from the Kentucky Department of Education that ultimately recommended that the state manage operations at the district. 

KDE will be coming back for a follow-up audit of JCPS in October 2020, when a potential state takeover may be back on the table depending on the agency's recommendations.

"We've had two years to really make some significant changes on those deficiencies that were identified in the audit," JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio told reporters at Moore. "So we're pleased where we are right now, but we know we've got a lot of work to do."

Pollio said he's "confident" that the district will have addressed every deficiency laid out in the audit "this time next year."

Pollio, who is entering his second school year as the district's superintendent, reiterated that this year will be one for JCPS to demonstrate the impact of policies and initiatives implemented last year, including those stemming from the wide-ranging corrective action plan.

He specifically mentioned the district's Backpack of Success Skills program, which requires students to upload projects to a digital portfolio and defend their learning as they transition to middle school, high school and graduation.

Teachers and other staff learned how to implement the initiative last year, and Pollio said this year will be one to show how the program is making a difference in student outcomes.

"I say it's similar to a coach taking over," Pollio said. "The first year is really about showing what we want to have happen, and then hopefully in that second year you really get some big results."

Pollio and other JCPS officials were at Moore to highlight the district's Academies of Louisville program as it begins its third year. Moore is one of 15 academy schools in JCPS.

Moore students who participate in the school's academy programs say they've been able to tap into their passions, which they hope to one day turn into their professions.

Alison Hodges, a junior in Moore's culinary program, says she has wanted to work in the food industry since the fifth grade. The program "is setting me up for a very successful career," she said.

"I never imagined five years ago that I would be in something like this," Hodges said. "We get to do culinary competitions. We get to cook practically every day and learn great skills for our future."

Josue Velasquez, a sophomore in Moore's science, technology, engineering and math academy, says he hopes the skills he's learning now will carry over when he pursues a career as an aerospace engineer.

Carson Osterhoudt, a junior in the STEM academy, says the program benefits students because it offers hands-on learning in a collaborative environment.

"You're never working on something alone," she said. "You always have people with you, so even if you fall back, there are other students there who can help pick you up.

"It's not like you're in a normal class setting where you just sit down and you read books all day or you fill out paperwork. You're using wrenches and screws and stuff. You're actually building a robot and coding to do super fun things."

Some schools took a different approach to welcoming their kids back from summer break.

At Watterson Elementary, the flashing lights of a firetruck and ambulance greeted buses full of kids as they pulled into the school.

But there wasn't an emergency at the school. Instead, local first responders were on hand to greet and high-five kids as they started their first day of the 2019-20 school year.

"I think it will show them that they value education, that the first reponders value it, so therefore they should, too," Watterson Principal Michael Hill, who is starting his first year as a principal. "I think it also will help build some relationships when they get to shake their hands and high-five them as they come by."

Jefferson County Fire spokesman Jordan Yuodis said Wednesday's welcome gave first responders a chance to interact directly with kids.

"Especially with the dangers that we face today, if they see us and we have to respond to their school for any reason, we want them to know that we're regular people, we're friendly people, and we just want to high-five them and wish them the best of luck on their first day," Yuodis said.

The first-day excitement will ultimately yield to daily class routines for the tens of thousands of JCPS students, but Pollio hopes the passion that typically comes with a school year's opening day will carry through the last day.

"Day one is great, but it's day one of 175, so we have to have this kind of energy for 174 more days," he said.

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