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Podcast: A New Paradigm in Education

Updated: Oct 1, 2019

Dr. Marty Pollio, Superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools, sits down with Tyler Poteet, Vice President of ASI Visual Collaboration Systems, Power of Public Speaking, and a JCPS graduate, to discuss the JCPS Backpack of Success Skills program. The Backpack program not only enables a deeper learning experience for JCPS students, it offers them opportunities to practice their Public Speaking skills.

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Tyler: Today we're here with Dr. Marty Pollio. I'll start out by just having you introduce yourself. Tell us a little bit about your background how you get to this point?

Dr. Pollio: Yeah, Marty Pollio, Superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools. I've been in JCPS now for let's see I just completed my 22nd year in JCPS. I've been here 22 years well over two decades. Came to JCPS to be a basketball coach and a teacher and started at the Academy at Shawnee. At that time, it was just Shawnee High School. I was a social studies teacher and a basketball coach.

I thought that it's what I was going to do with my career but found out that I loved teaching, as you know I was a basketball coach but I loved the teaching aspect of it. So, after a few years I was looking for something else and got tapped on the shoulder that I might be a good school leader and a principal and I went back to school. At that time, I had moved over to Wagner High School as a coach and a teacher. I was an Athletic Director there while I was working on my certification to become a principal. That's what I knew I wanted to do was become a Principal.

I thought I would do that the rest of my career. So, I spent 10 years as a Principal in JCPS, eight at Jeffersontown High School. Then I was asked I'm at the end of my 8th year if I would take over one of, at that time what was called a priority school or lowest performing schools, Doss High School. I was there for two years and had two great years there. Was really surprised when I was asked to take over the acting superintendent position here. It was something that I was not anticipating. Probably not fully prepared for at the time but you know I care a lot about this district, my colleagues’ kids. I'm a parent of JCPS students and so I want what's best for this district.

I jumped into being the Acting Superintendent and then once I jump in I'm usually going to go for it. So, I started that work is acting superintendent for about seven or eight months. Was fortunate enough to be named Superintendent. Now going on my second full year as permanent Superintendent for 3 years, this will be my third year in the position as a whole. So, it's kind of my background and what's brought me here.

Tyler: Well, congratulations, it's a good spot to end up for not having anticipated.

Dr. Pollio: That's right, well thank you.

Tyler: Well, our podcast and each episode, is about the power of public speaking. Could you speak to what that has meant in your career and maybe that's part of the reason that you've ended up where you are?

Dr. Pollio: Yeah, well I think you know even if we expand it from public speaking to what I consider to be communication. Communication is so vital in this role, whether that be in any leadership role. But whether that was as a principal, really is a coach and a teacher but as a Principal and now Superintendent communication is so important. That can come in various formats, from all the way from writing which I do a lot. Because I want the stakeholders in our organization, often our principals to hear my voice.

When I was Principal, I wanted teachers to hear my voice. So, hearing your voice ought not all the time means that I have the access to stand in front of them and say things. So, we have to find ways to do that, so I wrote often. Because I wanted them to know about belief, mission, vision, where we're headed, why we're headed there. So, I still do that as often as possible at least once a week with our principals to remind them of what we're doing. So, communication is so important, but being able to speak to that is so important.

I'm a big believer in having a lot of people say mission, vision what I call North Star, where we're headed and why we're headed there. So, you have to be able to sell that to the stakeholders is to where we're going and why we're doing that. So, you have to be able to speak about that and speak with confidence about it. So, public speaking becomes so important. I find the most important thing in public speaking is believing what you're talking about.

When I am speaking about something, I believe in which is a lot of JCPS, it's if you believe in it, if you trust what you're what you believe in if you know it well. Then you should be able to stand up and communicate to other people with the why. So, I do that often, I'd find every way possible for people to hear my voice from press conferences, to visiting schools, to writing, to things like a weekly wrap-up. Where we have our communications team just come in and essentially videotape me on a cell phone, giving a message out that goes out publicly.

So, the more I can speak about the why, the more successful we're going to be but you have to believe in it. So, clearly communication is a critical component of my job.

Tyler: I appreciate you saying that I believe very much in the why of what you're doing as well and way. Another episode talked with a CEO about how it's very important to get the entire team behind a mission. If you can't do that then you're not going to be successful, but if you can.

Dr. Pollio: If you are counting on the people in your organization to just show up for a paycheck. I mean clearly a job is for a paycheck, but people are looking for something more than a paycheck. They are looking to be a part of something bigger than them and especially in education. Because people are getting wealthy in education and there's not a lot of prospects to become wealthy in this profession. But they're doing it for a reason and usually that is to help children become successful. So, you have to continue to remind them of that and frame them that why of why we're doing this and that that's so critical.

Tyler: Right. Well, that leads me to what hoping we could discuss today as far as the, make sure I get the title bit right. It's the JCPS Backpack of Skills.

Dr. Pollio: Of Success Skills.

Tyler: Success Skills. As far as I know about it, it's a very interesting. From what I can tell worthwhile endeavor and it's actually come up in other episodes and being that it gives the opportunity to students to actually practice their public speaking skill and a lot more than that. Could you tell us about it?

Dr. Pollio: Sure, if you happy to talk about, it's a belief I've had my entire career that has built to really this moment. I'll tell you the background of it and how I got there if that's okay. All my career I've been in high schools. Throughout my career I've had the opportunity to visit high schools all across America, States all across America I've walked into high schools, one thing that they all have in common no matter whether it was urban, rural, poor, you know middle class whatever it might be socioeconomically.

What I found is, kids who oftentimes are going through the motions of being engaged in the learning process. In a way I find that to be heartbreaking over the years that. There's a lot of research that shows that engagement of students in the learning process actually peaks at third grade and then slowly declines third grade to the 12th grade. Now we would say, a lot of that are kids growing up and wanting to do other things other than be in school. But what we do in school and what we provide to students should not disengage them from school in the learning process.

It should actually inspire and provide passion for kids for their interests. Unfortunately, nationally our schooling system does not do that. I believe a lot of it, there's so many reasons involved I think grading is a major part of that. That once we start assigning grades for activities in class which is usually about the third grade, kids are no longer doing it because they're passionate about something they're doing it in exchange for a grade. I think clearly assessment and testing high-stakes testing has a hand in that as well.

I think clearly curriculum as a hand in that, that you know curriculum was designed over a hundred years ago. We continue to tweak it but were essentially we're teaching the same thing that many young people see no relevance to their current or future lives and we try to convince them that it is. So, I've always been very passionate about inspiring and engaging kids. I went to Doss High School with the belief around career in tech Ed having academies where kids are in an academy. So, we had an IT Academy at Doss High School and I felt kids should be in math, English, science and social studies class together with other kids that are passionate around IT.

So, we can bring all of this content under the IT umbrella, what these kids are passionate about. So, really working on engaging kids, when I stepped into this position, I really wanted to have a district-wide focus on what even our board strategic plan is. Which is around deeper learning, making meaning of learning and engaging kids. I was fortunate to bring on staff Dr. Carmen Coleman Chief Academic Officer, who really believed the same way I did and did the work in Danville, the same type of thing.

She always talked about, when a student graduates from high school the last opportunity we have and they walk across the stage, we hand them a diploma and shake their hand. What if we had a visual of a backpack? But the backpack being the skills that we want to have in this backpack when kids go out into the world. So, clearly, we want academic skills in there, we want them to be good readers. We want them to be mathematicians and scientists. We want them to know social studies and civics and those important things. But there are many other things we in there as well.

Those include things like being a great collaborator and being a communicator and being an innovator, being a globally and culturally competent citizen, being a resilient learner. So, these are the skills we develop through the process and we use the analogy of a backpack to do that. Many districts across the state and the nation are building this graduate profile saying here are the skills. Almost all of them are in similar type and communication is in almost every single one of them.

But we wanted to take it a step further to say we just don't want to say these are the skills, we want to provide instruction that is actually developing those and how can we do it. We took the unprecedented step of saying let's have a digital backpack for a hundred thousand kids. Where every kid in this district has this digital portfolio or evidence of learning. As they do these things in class, they have an artifact. So, they might download something, they might take a picture of something, they might create something, they might write something.

They put this in their digital backpack and then they would upload it into a specific folder for each of these success skills. So, I'll use communicator effective communicator as an example. I believe we can demonstrate the kid, a child can demonstrate evidence of learning in multiple ways. One can be a test a traditional test, multiple-choice tests. Fill the bubbles out and prove to us you can get nine out of ten answers right on average. On the other hand, I believe we can make a student stand up in front of their class and give a speech to their class.

Showing that they have evidence of their learning, so they are showing certain standards that I know what I'm talking about. The teacher can evaluate and assess that student based on a rubric of what they say. While at the meantime, in the meantime we're developing their communication skills. The teacher could record the speech, the student could then take that speech, put it in their backpack. Then have evidence of being an effective communicator, while also showing they know the standards.

The most powerful aspect of it which really shows that how important communication is, we are committed to transition readiness. Meaning every transition that a child has, they're demonstrating their readiness. So, that being 5th to 6th grade, elementary to middle, 8th to 9th, middle to high and then when they graduate 12th to college or career. We want a student to stand up in front of an authentic audience use their artifacts and defend their readiness to transition in those 5 success skills.

So, a student is not only demonstrating their readiness for effective communication by their evidence. But they're also standing up in front of an authentic audience defending their readiness similar to a college dissertation. So, that's kind of the background of it, we've been blown away we had well over a million artifacts put into the backpacks this year. We had nearly 21,000 students defend their readiness in front of authentic audiences this year all across this district.

It was a huge first year for us we've got ways to go, but I do believe this is the future of Education. I believe it's a collection of artifacts, I believe it's a balanced approach of show us your transcript, show us the grades you've got, but also show us you have these readiness skills. I believe some day this is what kids will be submitting to colleges for entrance are a portfolio of their evidence and the work that they've done. As opposed to just here is my GPA and here is one test score. I think we're on the cutting edge of that work.

Tyler: It sounds like I think that really, as well speaks to the power of public speaking all of this learning comes down to that moment when you can okay what you've learned.

Dr. Pollio: 100% correct.

Tyler: What, who are the audience is these authentic audiences, is it students?

Dr. Pollio: Yeah, what we've done is, we've tried to give guidelines to each school. I call it tight versus loose, where we say here are the things that are mandatory to be done, then here are some of the things you can create at your school based upon your own school culture. So, each school takes it a little differently to approach each school the defense might be a little different based upon how they do it or want to do it or develop it in their school. But what we've encouraged is that it not just be a staff from the school.

But that at each school it might be a teacher or two, staff member and administrator. There might be a parent on there, there might be a couple of people from local businesses who support and represent the school. You know when I was principal at Doss if I had been doing this, I would have so students from the IT Academy. I would have brought in some of the business partners that work with us an IT and so they have a real impact on the school. I had the opportunity to sit in on several dissertations as a member of committee so I did an elementary school in a middle school.

So, really making sure that this is a mix of and it's, to be honest it's a way for community members to get engaged in schools and with students. So, it's really been powerful not only for the student but for community members to be involved in this process as well.

Tyler: We actually spoke with some educators from Illinois and working with their states in it, to really just on the high school level introduce an oral comm component. That could be a fine arts credit and they're working just to make that an option. But what it sounds like what this really is you're taking that and spreading it out from K through 12, and really giving them, you said deeper learning. You talk about deeper learning. If you could compare the what you were doing in kindergarten versus 12th grade and especially comparing your dissertations your defenses at each of those transitions. That has got to be a really engaging and deep way to learn, these types of skills.

Dr. Pollio: Yeah, but you know I had this vision in my head that, one day we will have kids that will have this collection of evidence from K through 12. So, they can even show, here is a video of me communicating in the fifth grade. You know then in the fifth grade and you know I had these strengths but you know and here I was in the eighth grade. Now look how far I've come in the 12th grade as I present my dissertation. Maybe it's seven years later, but such a powerful way for a kid to demonstrate their readiness and their progress in development along this journey.

There's got a lot of possibilities that that we are really excited about.

Tyler: One thing that they had wondered in their State Senate, they had to really work with them on this was. Who's going to teach, how to do these things? So, how do you all handle because you've got all you said 21,000 students how are they being prepared to give you the presentation?

Dr. Pollio: Yeah, I mean it's something we have to continue to grow and develop. First of all, developing rubrics of, what it means to be an effective communicator. So, we've been working on that so that's the first part is making sure that they have these rubrics. The second part is training the teachers so that they know this. That's a difficult process when you have nearly 7,000 teachers in the district. One of the things I want to highlight in any of the work and I use this word a lot is the word authenticity.

I think true teaching and growth comes from authenticity. I said earlier that being a good public speaker, you must believe in what you are talking about. That's difficult to fake and I think all too often when we try to teach public speaking or communication any of those things. We are asking students to speak about things that they might not necessarily be passionate about and believe in. So, what we are trying to do with the backpack and the defense's and especially the communication or get things that students really have passion for or inspired by and believe in.

Then I think you can be a much more effective communicator when you do that. I think that's a big part of it is, is ensuring teaching the skills that are on the rubric. You know not having verbal crutches when you speak being prepared, what does a public speech, what is the format of a speech look like. That you have a format that you you have a clear beginning and an end and a hook. All of those things that we would talk about in effective public speaking and eye contact. But that, so having those as a part of a rubric but making sure kids are able to do those things with something, they're passionate about.

Tyler: Right. Well, it's been study after study that says really communication skills is the number one skill set that employers look for.

Dr. Pollio: Yep.

Tyler: It sounds like JCPS students like never before are leaving with that skill set.

Dr. Pollio: Yeah, we hope so. I mean we've heard as a high school principal working with a lot of businesses and our academies of Louisville initiative. That's all I heard over and over and over again, it's great you're teaching a math, you're teaching them science, you're teaching them. I need employees who know how to communicate and speak I can work well with others are resilient when they face hurdles. Good citizens work well with other people you know are innovators and think outside of the box what we kept hearing. So, we are required to teach certain standards and curriculum by law.

So, we have to do that, but we also have to do it's going to provide success for our kids. There is no doubt communication and speaking is a critical component for a student success.

Tyler: Appreciate hearing that. It's good to know that JCPS is got that vision.

Dr. Pollio: We're working, yep.

Tyler: Is there anything else, we have educators’, students, professionals in our audience that you'd like to to leave with the audience, in general that I haven't asked about or anything?

Dr. Pollio: Well, I mean you know I would finish with this I think you know once again I can't say enough about this word authenticity. So, when I talk about speaking, making sure it's authentic in what we do. But I also want to say the work we do in schools has to inspire kids. You know ensuring that kids have certain level of reading and math skills are extremely important and we have to be committed to that. But we have to make sure that we inspire learning and inspire kids and make them passionate about what they're doing in school.

I'm a father, I have a daughter who's going into the ninth grade. All too often throughout her educational career to this point the first nine years, I see her doing compliant work. Compliant work doesn't inspire, now that doesn't mean everything that we always do is going to inspire. But what does inspire her are those projects she does that she's passionate about. She's passionate about the environment, so anytime she gets to do something about the environment she dives in head first. Think about how many things we could teach using that platform.

From English language arts reading to science, to this is where you get into it. She will stand up and speak passionately about the environment and those issues. The more we can have kids those things that inspire them to do great things they're passionate about, the more success we will have with our kids. They will be more engaged in research shows; engagement student belonging is critical to success. We'll keep working on here in Jefferson County. I believe it's where our national education model needs to go which is, yes we've got to teach standards and curriculum but we got to do it in a way that inspires kids and makes them passionate about learning.

Tyler: Well, I appreciate you taking the time. Best of luck.

Dr. Pollio: Thank you.

Tyler: Thank you.

Dr. Pollio: Appreciate it.


For more information on Jefferson County Public Schools and the Backpack of Success Skills, visit Also visit to find a full transcript of our interview with Dr. Pollio, as well as recent related articles.


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