Photography by Dan Austin

Jacqueline Byrd, superintendent of Polk County Public Schools, is focused on making an impact on every child in the district. Her top priorities are academic achievement, school safety, and improving the learning and working environment in the schools.  Great achievements have been made since she took the helm in 2016, and “the best is yet to come.”

When Jacqueline Byrd came to Polk County in June 2013 to become Deputy Superintendent of Schools, it was “one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.” According to Byrd, who is married and has two children, “coming to Polk was the logical next step in a career fueled by a desire to serve students.”

A self-described “true educator at heart,” Byrd began her career as a kindergarten teacher in Jacksonville. “I loved being able to make an impact on the children in my classroom,” says Byrd. “I loved watching the ‘light bulbs’ click on as they learned foundational skills in reading and math. I reveled in helping them develop academically, socially, emotionally, and so on.”

The call to become an administrator appealed to Byrd “because doing so offered me the opportunity to make an even greater impact. As a principal, I could impact an entire school.”  Now, as superintendent of Polk County Public Schools, a role to which she was appointed in 2016, she sets the tone for leadership and communication districtwide. “Everything I do influences the entire organization, and therefore, every single child served by Polk County Public Schools.”

Since coming to Polk County, Byrd has had many rewarding experiences, but she puts developingrelationships and connections at the top. “I’ve made building relationships within the communities of Polk County and our schools a top priority of my work as superintendent, and I’m proud of the headway my team and I have made in that regard,” says Byrd. “My leadership team and I spend a great deal of time in the schools, connecting with teachers, staff, school-based administrators, students, parents and volunteers. Through the relationships we forge, we’re able to better understand the challenges facing our schools, and we’re better able to help them develop solutions.”

According to Byrd, another rewarding achievement was raising the district’s letter grade from the state to a “B” during the 2017-18 school year, and maintaining it for the 2018-19 school year.  “The district had been a ‘C’ for eight years,” says Byrd. “Moving the grade was only possible through teamwork and sheer hard work on the part of every school district stakeholder.  It was a huge victory for Polk County Public Schools. It was a message to our community that this is a district on the rise. I am very proud to have been part of achieving the ‘B’, and I look forward to even greater things to come for our district.”

As superintendent, Byrd’s top priorities have been academic achievement, school safety, and improving the learning and working environment in the schools. “We’ve made great progress in all three areas,” says Byrd. “In terms of academic achievement, we’ve raised the district grade to a ‘B’ for the first time in eight years. We continue to increase the percentage of third-grade students who are proficient in reading. We have zero traditional schools with a grade of ‘F’.  We have more than 20 nationally certified career academies. We are on an upward trajectory academically. I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve achieved, and I am certain we have only just begun.”

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She recalls, “In the area of school safety, everyone in education was shaken by the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 [where 17 peoplewere killed and 17 injured by a teen gunman in Parkland, Florida]. Following that incident, and the legislation that resulted, my team and I collaborated with Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd to create the School Safety Guardian program, which has since been replicated by districts across the state. The School Safety Guardian program is a testament to the commitment to student safety that the school district and our law enforcement partners share.”

With regard to improving the learning and working environment, Byrd points to the comprehensive student behavior and discipline plan that went into effect at the beginning of this school year. According to Byrd, “The plan includes new protocol for schools to request behavioral support, a system to log and track behavior support requests, five regional behavior support teams, and a full continuum of instructional settings, which will include therapeutic sites for elementary and secondary students, day treatment settings and residential settings.”

For Byrd, the student behavior and discipline plan is a great example of how the district can support school-based personnel, and is a direct response to their concerns. “I am proud of the collaboration that went into this plan,” she says, “and I fully expect it will improve the experience of both students and employees.”

To accomplish these goals, and look ahead to the future, Byrd believes that collaboration is key. “My team and I are constantly in the schools. This is where we see the effects of our work. This is where we see firsthand the challenges facing our school-based personnel and students. The knowledge and experiences we gather from being in the schools allow us to help develop more effective solutions, and to adjust where needed.” One of the specific things Byrd and her team have learned from work in the schools is that staffing is a persistent issue districtwide. “We talk about raising academic achievement,” says Byrd, “but we can’t do that without a stable and effective teaching force.”

Since becoming Superintendent, Byrd says that the position “has taught me much about myself as a leader. I had never previously served as a superintendent. I am very hands-on. I like to be in the schools, working alongside teachers and students.” But with more than 14,000 employees and more than 100,000 students, Byrd has learned that it is imperative that she empower her leadership team. “It is crucial that district and school-based leaders share the same goals, values, and commitment to students, because the only way we’re going to move forward as a district is together. I have learned that investing in my leadership structure will reap great dividends for the entire district.”    

While the Superintendent position does not allow for much free time, any she does have is spent with her husband, Jason, and two children. “Family always comes first for me,” says Byrd. “Without my family, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Jason and I both enjoy dining at the local restaurants.  You will also often find us enjoying school plays, athletic events, concerts, etc. There is such great talent within our school district!”

As part of her role in the district, Byrd is a member of the Board of Directors of the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce, Polk Vision, and Polk Education Foundation. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the Florida Association of District School Superintendents (FADSS), and serves with FADSS’ Mental Health Initiative. She is also a member of Leadership Polk Class X. “All of these organizations help me to better understand the economic and educational landscape of Polk County, and how the public school district can best serve its community,” says Byrd.

Personally, Byrd is also a bone marrow donor, and once served as a spokesperson for the Be the Match Foundation.  Although she is no longer a spokesperson, she remains active with the organization, and assists with local bone marrow drives. “My experience as a donor and with Be the Match has had a big impact on me; donating bone marrow saves lives.”

Looking ahead for the district, Byrd’s goal is to “continue on the path we’ve set for Polk County Public Schools. We’ll continue raising the bar of academic achievement, keep doing everything we can to ensure student safety, and continue to address issues related to student behavior and discipline. We truly are headed in the right direction as a district. We must stay the course. I have no doubt that if we are consistent and intentional in everything we do, the best is yet to come for this district.”

“My leadership team and I spend a great deal of time in the schools, connecting with teachers, staff, school-based administrators, students, parents and volunteers. Through the relationships we forge, we’re able to better understand the challenges facing our schools, and we’re better able to help them develop solutions.”

When asked what she wishes people knew about her, Byrd replied, “The most important thing to know about me as the Superintendent of Polk County Public Schools is that I am driven to serve the students of Polk County. Every decision I make, every action I take is with their best interest at heart.” Byrd believes that working in education is the greatest calling, and she is determined to fulfill her calling to the best of her ability. “The people of Polk County have entrusted me with their most precious assets — their children,” says Byrd.  “I work every day to ensure their children excel, are safe, and can go on to lead happy, successful lives. It is an honor and a pleasure to serve as Superintendent of Polk County Public Schools, and I do not take it lightly.”

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An invitation from Superintendent Byrd:

“I encourage members of the public to visit or volunteer for one of our schools to see for themselves the great things that are happening within our district. Once they get into our schools, I think members of the public will be surprised by all we have to offer, including our many valuable career programs for students. We truly are a leading district, and Polk County should be very proud.”

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