Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Education

Family struggles helped spark new Pinellas superintendent's passion for education

Mike Grego, Pinellas County's new school superintendent, took a big risk four years ago.

He quit a comfortable job as a top school administrator in Hillsborough County, where he had spent 28 years rising through the ranks. Leaving one of the state's biggest districts behind, he took the post as superintendent in Osceola County, which has just about a third as many students as Hillsborough.

Like many school administrators before him, Grego, now 55, wanted the top job.

"At that point, it was kind of like a pinnacle of my career," he said. "I felt like it was time to go on and take the next step."

Wild leap is more to the point. Being superintendent is political and rarely long-lasting. The average tenure is just shy of four years. If it goes bad — as it can when an elected school board controls your fate — it can be a career killer.

Dennis Thompson in Collier County. Wayne Alexander in Hernando County. Art Johnson in Palm Beach County. Julie Janssen in Pinellas. All their careers fell prey to the superintendent graveyard.

For Grego, it looked like it might end that way, too.

• • •

Grego made a big mark in Osceola, overseeing dramatic academic improvements. But he was out in just three years, quitting under the cloud of a contentious relationship with former School Board chairwoman Cindy Hartig.

Grego has declined to say much about it publicly.

Hartig, who was soundly defeated in last month's primary, hasn't been quiet. In a response to the Tampa Bay Times, Hartig called Grego a "dictator."

Her comments prompted an outpouring of support for Grego. Letters came to the Pinellas School Board from former colleagues in Hillsborough and Osceola counties, all defending him as approachable, a team player and honorable.

Soft-spoken and genteel, with almost no hint in his voice of his Long Island, N.Y., upbringing, Grego's passion for education is evident in every conversation.

He still can rattle off data — school grades, graduation rates and the like — about Osceola County's schools, and he impressed the board members here with his seemingly in-depth knowledge of Pinellas County's trouble spots.

Still, his Osceola resignation could have proved a stumbling block. Many school boards don't want to risk hiring anyone with even a hint of scandal.

Plus, superintendent jobs are rare. Leaving one without having another lined up can make it hard to land a job that isn't a step down in status.

But, after leaving Osceola, Grego almost immediately was recruited to Tallahassee to serve as Florida's interim chancellor of public education and then briefly was a senior adviser to the state education commissioner.

The posts, while temporary, gave him greater statewide recognition and connections in the state Department of Education.

A job as an associate professor at the University of Central Florida, which he has held for a year, allowed him to stay in Osceola, where his wife is a teacher and his daughter is in her senior year of high school.

Why leave academia to step back into the fray of a large, urban school district?

• • •

For Grego, the Pinellas job was a chance to get involved in the education of children in a community where he has strong ties.

Teaching college has its rewards. But K-12 education is an opportunity to change lives from the beginning, he said.

"Even today, as a superintendent, it's my greatest joy," he said. "You never lose that."

That enthusiasm bubbles up as Grego talks about today's stickiest education problems.

How do you improve graduation rates?

Personal attention and a data-driven approach. Find out which students are failing class and which don't even show up. "Hook" them into school by meeting their needs with innovations like career academies and credit-recovery programs.

"You personalize every student. People think that can't be done and it can be done," he said.

Attention is critical, he said, citing his "double-F list'' in Osceola. On the list were ninth-graders who had two Fs on their report cards and were singled out for close tracking. With techniques like that, he said, Osceola's graduation rate rose by double digits during his tenure.

The Pinellas board liked Grego's ideas. Most of all, board members said they felt that Grego wouldn't wait to solve problems.

"I think that sense of urgency convinced me the most," said board member Janet Clark.

The board, which later this month is set to formalize Grego's hiring once his contract is worked out, also liked his ties to the community.

Although Grego worked in Hillsborough County for nearly 30 years, he lived on the county line and spent much of his personal time in Pinellas.

Church, his children's preschool, Little League games, his parents. All were in Pinellas.

"We did a lot in this community," he said last week. "We loved it here."

His parents, whom he followed to the Sunshine State as a young man fresh out of graduate school, have since died. But his sisters still are in the area. One is in Pinellas, the other lives in Pasco County. His nephew attends a Pinellas County high school.

Several board members said they were impressed that Grego, after stepping down in Osceola, didn't apply for every available superintendent job in the state.

"He is interested in being here for the long term and we want that," said board member Carol Cook.

• • •

Part of his new job's appeal, Grego says, is the challenges in Pinellas.

The achievement gap. Declining enrollment. Low black male graduation rate.

His passion for education goes back to the circumstances that sparked his interest in the field as a young man in the 1970s. The economy was in the dumps. His father, a machinist on Long Island, lost his job and then his life savings when his plant closed. His mother had to find a job for the first time, going to work at a dry cleaners.

Grego was the first in his family to go to college. Despite the family's financial troubles, there was "never a question that I wouldn't finish." His parents believed a college education was the key to success.

Their struggles drew him to teaching.

"I absolutely enjoyed this notion about changing lives," he said.

But it struck him that while college was a path forward, it was not the only one. Good training of many kinds could mean the difference between employment and unemployment, minimum wage and a few bucks more.

Vocational education has been a constant theme in his career. He earned a bachelor's degree in technology education and, with a full scholarship, got a master's degree in the same subject.

In Hillsborough County, many of his administrative positions were in career education. His last post there was a broader assignment, as assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

In Osceola, too, he stressed technical education, expanding high school career academies from one to 22.

"I believe firmly, it shouldn't be all or nothing, college or nothing," he said.

His parents' efforts to rebuild their lives brought them to Florida. He and his sisters followed.

"It was a good move and I've been here 32 years," he said.

Now he'd like to make Pinellas his home.

It will mean a year of transition for his family as his wife and daughter stay in Osceola, while he moves here. (Their son is at the University of North Florida.)

He hopes to defy the superintendent odds and make it a long-term move.

"It's not an easy decision. It changes our life as a family," he said. But, "it's our belief, and we've talked about it, that this is an area of service I can do."

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the following: A nephew of new Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego attends a Pinellas high school. An article Sunday misstated the gender.

Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected], (727) 893-8846 or on Twitter @Fitz_ly.

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