If Carlton Jenkins is chosen as the next superintendent of the Madison School District, the city would be getting an African American leader whom students of color could look up to, Jenkins told community members Tuesday.
Jenkins — who got his Ph.D. from UW-Madison and is currently the superintendent of Robbinsdale School District, located in the northwestern suburbs of Minneapolis — said his mother had a 10th-grade education, and his father had only a third-grade education. He said he has a unique understanding of Madison’s students of color who are experiencing achievement gaps.
“The children that you’re talking about that are the most vulnerable — that’s me,” Jenkins told those watching the Facebook live interview. “I want you to look at me, and look at the children who you’re seeing right now having those gaps, and know that it’s possible. It’s possible. And if it can happen anywhere ... eliminating those gaps, it should happen in Madison.”
Jenkins is one of two finalists being interviewed this week for the superintendent position, which still needs to be filled after the district’s first choice dropped out of the running months ago. The district conducted a new search that yielded Jenkins and finalist Carol Kelley as the top two candidates. Either finalist would be Madison’s first African American superintendent.
Kelley — an educator with 25 years of experience, who got her doctorate of education from the University of Pennsylvania and is currently serving as superintendent of the Oak Park Elementary School District 97 in Illinois — will be interviewed Wednesday night.
Jenkins said he is happy in his current position in Minnesota and wasn’t considering job opportunities until “Madison came calling.” In addition to graduating from UW-Madison, Jenkins was an associate principal at Madison Memorial High School early in his career. He’s also held educational leadership positions — including chief academic officer, principal and health teacher — in Michigan, Ohio, Atlanta and Beloit.
He said accepting the superintendent position in Madison would be “coming home.”
“This is a place that you would have a superintendent, if you select me, that comes here unapologetically knowing and loving Madison,” Jenkins said. “I am a Badger through and through. I’m here for our children.”
Jenkins noted his district in Minnesota was the first in the state to close because of the COVID-19 coronavirus emergency. He said he wouldn’t want to reopen schools in Madison if it is not safe. If schools need to stay closed, he said online learning should be bolstered.
“We don’t want to put their health at risk,” he said.
Helen Bassett, vice chairwoman of the Robbinsdale Area Schools Board, said Jenkins has been a “remarkable” leader both through the COVID-19 crisis and the nationwide protests that have followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
Jenkins invoked Floyd’s name during his interview, and said he would work to address the racial tensions in Madison that have gained attention over the past month because of the protests against police violence and racism.
“We have our society right now that’s dealing with the murder, the lynching of Mr. George Floyd,” Jenkins said. “We (are) all in a very vulnerable place right now. Until we can address that fully and deal with how we are running our schools and thinking about our schools in a very anti-racist fashion, then we’re going to continue to have some of the tension that we have right now.”
Throughout his interview, Jenkins emphasized that his style of leadership would be one of building relationships and listening to students, teachers, parents and the community.
Bassett said that has been her experience working with Jenkins in Minnesota. She said he has a “deep regard” for student voices, and appreciates staff and teachers.
“Oftentimes people talk about highlighting and lifting up student voices, and he really has lived up to that,” Bassett said.
Jenkins said he wants to talk with teachers and parents about how to build the best curriculum for students, particularly one in which students of color “can see themselves reflected in” the materials they are studying.
He said he would meet with parents where they are at out in neighborhoods and look for ways to partner with local organizations and UW-Madison to strengthen the district.
“We have to come back after hearing from our community and begin to put action plans in place,” Jenkins said. “A courageous conversation with no action is a waste of time for everyone.”
Jenkins committed himself to creating change in the district if he is selected.
“We have the top university, why can’t we have the top district?” Jenkins said. “Whatever happens, Madison needs to move forward. It’s time.”
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