BROOKSVILLE — Lori Romano's path to becoming superintendent of Hernando County schools began with a plunge.
Just 21 years old and fresh out of college, Romano landed her first teaching job in Montgomery, Ala., instructing four grade levels of students with learning disabilities.
Many of her students lived in poverty. Some had relatives who were addicted to drugs. Others had parents who were forced to turn to prostitution. There was abuse and homelessness.
Where some wound have found a daunting mess, Romano saw an exciting opportunity.
"It was the best year ever," Romano said. "It taught me that education wasn't just about teaching kids how to read or do math — it was about the whole child."
It also reinforced something else: She wasn't afraid of a challenge.
Over a career spanning two decades, Romano, 41, has risen rapidly through the education ranks, tackling administrative roles at the state and school district level, spearheading initiatives across Florida and earning a reputation as honest and collaborative leader.
Now she'll face her biggest challenge yet: Leading the Hernando County School District.
Romano has never held the title of superintendent or assistant superintendent. She has never managed so many people or been in charge of such a large budget.
She says that's not a problem.
"First of all, you have to believe that you can," she recently told the Tampa Bay Times in a wide-ranging interview about her new position. "I know that I can."
She said she will apply the same processes and strategies she used in her most recent job as director of adult, community, secondary and virtual education with Martin County schools, a high-achieving district on the east coast of Florida.
"You treat people how you want to be treated and you treat them fairly," she said. "You create a team. I don't care if it's five people or a 1,000 people, if you lead with that belief and philosophy, that's what's going to make the work happen the way it needs to."
She's earned high praise for her leadership in her past job.
In her only publicly available Martin evaluation, she earned the highest marks possible.
Debra Banta worked under Romano for three years in Martin and said Romano was focused on students, compassionate and always open to new ideas.
"She's a consensus builder," said Banta, a community-involvement liaison.
Pamela Kessler, president of the Martin County Education Association, the district's teacher's union, said Romano was a level-headed administrator who was easy to work with and professional at the negotiating table.
"She always was very eager to see our side and understand where we were coming from," Kessler said.
She said Romano was particularly helpful in implementing new teacher evaluations and offering insight from her time with the Florida Department of Education.
In Martin, Romano oversaw roughly 72 employees and a budget of $3.2 million and was intimately involved with curriculums at various levels, including all secondary schools.
She served as the site administrator for the county's virtual school and supervised the implementation of the career and technical education programs. She has led teacher contract negotiations, strategic planning and helped put in place new teacher and principal evaluations.
Romano said Martin prospered during her three-year tenure. Under her direction, the district boasted one of the highest graduation rates in the state and some of its top FCAT scores in reading and writing. Each of the district's secondary schools under her supervision received an A grade for the 2011-12 school year, the most recent year data are available.
In applying for the superintendent position, Romano seemed like a long shot.
What set her apart, largely, was her nine years of experience with the Department of Education, where she served in various roles, including as a program evaluator and director of state improvement.
School Board member Gus Guadagnino said the key reason he supported her was that background.
"She's coming out of a world that's ahead of ours," he said shortly after the board voted 3-2 to name Romano as the new superintendent.
Romano faces a challenge right away in being named by a split board. Board chairman Matt Foreman and board member Cynthia Moore both supported Hernando assistant superintendent Ken Pritz.
Romano said she will meet with all of the board members individually, seeking their opinions on a range of issues.
"Our board needs to become a cohesive, collaborative unit so we can make the best decisions for kids," she said.
Romano has a number of goals to make Hernando a high-performing school district.
She wants to increase student attendance and graduation rates, decrease the dropout rate and focus on program evaluation. Romano said she was surprised by the dropout rate in Hernando, which is well above the state average.
"We're pretty deep here," she said.
She expects to make "substantial" positive changes in her first two years in these areas.
Romano said she's assembling a 100-day entry plan, which she will share with board members. Once her 100 days are up, she'll compile a report to show what she accomplished.
"I'm a data-driven person," she said.
Romano, in the process of moving to her new home in Hernando, has been in a whirlwind of meetings, getting to know the district and its staff.
So far, she's been welcomed with open arms.
In her office on the first day, staff members placed flowers on her desk and hung a sign.
"Lori," it read, "you are super."
Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.