Mike Grego had a captive audience and, like any seasoned school administrator, he had come prepared. For a few hundred parents at Clearwater Fundamental Middle School, that meant a PowerPoint presentation about five "action goals" projected onto the wall of the gymnasium.
He started with some crowd pleasers. He praised parents for their leadership and mentioned his own children. But it wasn't long before Grego did what educators love to do: He gave a pop quiz.
What is the common thread tying together the five goals?
Silence, as parents shifted uneasily on the bleachers. Some cast their gaze down, up, anywhere but at the man holding the microphone. Finally, an answer. "Student achievement?"
If there's been a theme to the first six months of Grego's leadership of Pinellas County Schools, it's that. Every dollar, every position, every program should affect how students learn, he said. If not, it should be changed.
The constant question should be: What do high-performing school districts do?
"If high-performing school districts have after-school clubs and high levels of math and science and chess club and whatever, then we better have after-school clubs … That's where the dollars should go," he said.
• • •
In Pinellas County, that might be easier said than done.
Grego, 55, stepped into the 101,000-student school system in late September after a tumultuous period. The School Board fired former superintendent Julie Janssen in August 2011, leaving Pinellas looking for a new leader for the fourth time in seven years.
A study commissioned by John Stewart, the district's interim leader, described a top-heavy administration bogged down by a culture of internal competition. Schools weren't getting the support they needed. With nearly 90 administrators approaching retirement, there was no plan to replace them or any sense that others were ready to step up.
Grego is reluctant to talk about what should have been done in the past. But his five goals — basically a "to do" list with 89 items — hint at things left undone or ignored.
Many of those areas are in curriculum and instruction, what Grego calls the "heart and soul" of education.
One of his goals is telling: "Monitor and ensure that appropriate reading instruction is taking place in all schools, especially low-performing schools."
Reading scores at some Pinellas schools are shockingly low. At Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg, for instance, 84 percent of students scored below grade level in reading last year. At Belleair Elementary in Clearwater, 61 percent of students weren't proficient in reading. But the problem isn't limited to individual schools; 44 percent of Pinellas third graders read below grade level.
Another of Grego's goals seems to suggest that the district's internal tests were never updated to reflect the state's Next Generation Sunshine State Standards. The standards, which have been in place for years, spell out what students should learn. Nor do the tests reflect new standards, known as the Common Core, which are expected to be in place in 2014.
Asked if the district is years behind, Grego said the blame isn't entirely on Pinellas. In some cases, district leaders expected more support from the state than they got. But he acknowledged that keeping up with education standards is a "deficiency."
"It's a big area to work on," he said. "It's one of those big lifts that's not going to go away."
• • •
In a job that often is about style and ego, Grego has been a quiet leader.
He hasn't held a news conference. His staff hasn't put out many press releases touting new programs. Asked if a Tampa Bay Times photographer could follow him to a school, Grego declined. He didn't want to disrupt the "instructional day."
Yet he's constantly in the schools and the community. He has visited about 70 schools, spoken to multiple parent groups and made inroads with the business community. His approval rating, based on the latest survey of employees, was 86 percent. Months before she was fired, Janssen's approval rating was 27 percent.
If there's a honeymoon period for new superintendents, Grego is in it. He has been generally praised by business leaders, board members, principals, teachers and parents.
Jim Myers, chairman of the Pinellas Education Foundation, credited Grego for starting the day early and staying late. School Board member Linda Lerner described him as deliberate. Michael Bessette, the district's head of operations, said the district had been stagnant before Grego's arrival.
"We're not just talking about things and planning things," Bessette said. "We're doing things."
Janssen was forced to flip-flop on major initiatives after unveiling them without the support of parents or the School Board. But Grego has managed to roll out programs with no backlash — even though he's been light on the details about how the district will pay for them.
He directed principals to plan more extended day programs. He started Pinellas County's first "talent identification program," encouraging high-performing seventh graders to take a college admissions exam. He created an aspiring leaders program to encourage teachers to consider careers in administration. He pushed for a major expansion of career programs.
Tom and Sharon Chapman, both general contractors and parents of students at Clearwater Fundamental Middle, were pleased with Grego's emphasis on career and technical programs. There's a shortage of trained workers available right now, Tom Chapman said.
"If they love it, they're going to stay with it," he said.
Grego's boldest initiative so far has been trying to steer 12,000 struggling students into six-week summer classes, called Summer Bridge, a program intended to curb summer learning losses. So far, about 1,000 students have signed up.
With registration closing Tuesday, it's unlikely the district will get nearly as many students as Grego had hoped. But the new superintendent is unfazed, saying his philosophy is to set high goals and strive to meet them.
"If it comes down to it, you get 2,000 or 3,000 — huge success," he said. "When you fall a little short, celebrate because you've come farther than you would have."
If there has been a ripple at all, it was over Summer Bridge. Grego wanted to pay teachers a flat rate, far less than a veteran would earn. The Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association pushed back — and ultimately won. Teachers will earn their regular rate, minus money from the voter-approved property tax that usually supplements their salaries.
But Kim Black, president of the teachers union, described Grego's intentions as "honorable." He was trying to reach more students with the money. She, too, praised him for visiting schools, talking to teachers and taking an interest in "all students."
"I feel encouraged," she said. "We were ready for a good leader."
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8846. Follow @Fitz_ly on Twitter.