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Amid ‘the toughest time in education in over a century,’ Pollio touts wins for JCPS

A man in a suit and tie stands at a podium.
Ryan Van Velzer
/
LPM
JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio

During his annual state of the district address, Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio touted overhauls to facilities, student assignment and school funding as successes amid tumult.

“There is no more challenging time to be a school board member, superintendent or a leader than today,” Pollio told the audience gathered at the Kentucky Science Center on Thursday.

Pollio called the past several years “the toughest time in education in over a century.”

“We have faced a multitude of crises: the pandemic, and mental health issues with our kids, increasing poverty and challenges,” Pollio said.

Pollio highlighted investments JCPS made in facilities since he came on board in 2018. The district has built several new schools in recent years, includingthe first West End elementary school in two decades.

Those investments have been made possible by a $54 million tax increase the board passed in 2020. Pollio said the district plans to build 25 more schools by 2036.

“We still have facility after facility that is an embarrassment to the city of Louisville,” Pollio said. “... And now we are able to cook with gas when it comes to facilities.”

The superintendent also underscored major revisions to the student assignment plan. Starting next year, middle and high school students in Louisville’s majority-Black West End will have the option to attend a school closer to home. While the plan gives more Black families more agency, critics worry about the increased racial and economic segregation guaranteed to occur under the new arrangement.

Pollio said so far, 80% of middle and elementary school families in the West End and downtown areas who have historically been assigned to far-away schools have instead chosen closer-to-home options. The majority of high school students, however, are still choosing more racially integrated schools in the East and South ends.

Pollio also spotlighted gains in graduation rates, which is at an all-time high of 85.6%, as well as the successes of the Academies of Louisville — public-private partnerships that provide career training in high schools, which Pollio said are better engaging students in their education. He touted improvements in technology available to students and changes to ensure students districtwide are taught using the same “rigorous curriculum that is supported by research.”

Ongoing Challenges

The greatest challenges Kentucky’s largest school district faces are staffing shortages, low student attendance, and partisan attacks on educators, according to Pollio.

“Teachers today are asked to do more than they've ever done in the history of education to meet the needs of kids,” Pollio said. “And yet public education and teachers continue to be attacked on a regular basis. And then we wonder why we have a teacher shortage.”

The district has more than 300 teacher vacancies, according to Pollio. In a district of 96,000 students, it means some classrooms go without a consistent instructor, and it’s leading to burnout among teachers who are scrambling to cover classes.

The staffing shortages also extend to transportation — a lack of bus drivers means hundreds of JCPS students are late to school every day. Pollio took the opportunity to promote a plan to change school start times that he says will solve the bus driver shortage and give many more middle and high school students an extra hour of sleep, promoting increases in attendance.

At some high-needs schools, Pollio said 75% of students are chronically absent, meaning they missed 18 days or more of school.

“We are putting our teachers and schools in an impossible task, and we have to take steps to change that,” Pollio said.

“It's going to require this community to look at the community as a whole and not just what's convenient to me and my family. And I know those are hard choices, but this is what we have to do.”

Finally, Pollio urged the community to back JCPS and its educators against political attacks. Since the pandemic, public school districts have increasingly found themselves at the center of partisan debates over COVID-19 protocols, student policing and inclusive curriculum.

“Public education is under attack like it has never been before,” Pollio said.

“I believe everybody in this room has to stand up and say, ‘Enough.’”

Pollio previously said he plans to bring the school start times proposal to the board before spring break begins on April 3.

Support for this story was provided in part by theJewish Heritage Fund.

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Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.