Orange County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Barbara Jenkins has elevated public school education to new levels and given every student the opportunity to graduate.
The mission of education, the potential it can unlock in an individual’s life, and the doors it can open for both fulfillment and advancement represent why the field has always been much more than simply a career track for Barbara Jenkins, Ed.D., superintendent of Orange County Public Schools (OCPS). For Jenkins, education is a calling, which is fortunate for those who live and work in Central Florida. With the region experiencing meteoric growth, one of the primary factors attracting both families and businesses is a school system that positions every student for a successful career track, as well as provides them with the skills that enable them to be lifelong learners in an ever-changing world.
“From the time I was in the first grade,
I wanted to be a teacher,” Jenkins said. “After school I would go home and teach my younger siblings or my dolls because I was so passionate and enamored with school and with sharing what I had learned. I never wanted to do anything else.”
The significance of education was stressed in Jenkins’ home, and the focus on academic excellence was an expectation she was raised with. In fact, she and Byron Brooks, the city of Orlando’s chief administrative officer, were first grade classmates in Orlando, and his father, Rufus Brooks, was her elementary school principal.
Early on, Jenkins recognized the power education has to make all the boats in the harbor rise, a fact well documented and universally acknowledged. A half century ago, emerging world powers such as India and China recognized their greatest natural resource was an educated populace, and today we are seeing the fruit of that vision
“Education,” as George Washington Carver said, “is the key that unlocks the golden door of freedom.” That freedom is what fuels a growing and diverse economy. It is the pipeline that cannot run dry without dire consequences.
“You aren’t born smart, you become smart based on the effort and hard work you invest in learning. If you work harder, you get smarter.”
– Dr. Barbara Jenkins
Making Good Things Happen
While teaching elementary school, Jenkins’ leadership skills soon became apparent to one of her principals. He was one of the first of many who encouraged Jenkins’ ascent into ever-increasing responsibility, though she was completely contented as a classroom teacher.
“They told me I was having a great impact on students in my classroom and asked if I would like to expand that influence and make good things happen for even more students,” she said.
It was a mantra that was repeated as she rose from teacher, to principal, to one of the senior directors for Elementary Education with OCPS, then to the Charlotte school system and back to OCPS as chief of staff, deputy superintendent and then, since 2012, superintendent.
When Superintendent Ronald Blocker lured her back from Charlotte, he did not mention he was planning his own retirement and saw Jenkins as a natural heir apparent. “I was very happy as a second in command, but he was fantastic about assigning me to positions that expanded my skill set and strategic understanding,” she recalled. “He would say, ‘It is time grasshopper, snatch the pebble from my hand,’” (a reference to the 70’s TV series Kung Fu).
“In our work, we must serve a tapestry of students from homeless to affluent, from severely disabled to brilliant. Some people think I have a terribly difficult job, but the fact is, I can’t think of anything more rewarding or satisfying.” – Dr. Barbara Jenkins
Over time, it became obvious leading a school system was not a matter of if, but when and where. In fact, while in Charlotte, she was accepted to participate in the prestigious Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation’s Urban Superintendent Academy.
One reason for her successive rise is the key philosophies that have not only informed her career, but have shaped the DNA of the county’s system. For instance, as she put it, “You aren’t born smart, you become smart based on the effort and hard work you invest in learning. Effort cannot be underestimated. If you work harder, you get smarter.”
It is a concept that research on the brain is continually substantiating; young people, in particular, can dramatically alter their intellectual capacity by exercising their brains, just like working out strengthens our muscles.
As leader of an organization second only to Disney in employees with over 24,000, more buses than Lynx and serving more meals than any local food franchise, along with a $3.8 billion-dollar budget to equip more than 207,000 students, the CEO designation really does apply to Jenkins. The district has won numerous recognitions, including the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education and the Governor’s Sterling Award for business operations in 2014 and 2017 and for human resources in 2015.
Jenkins is proud that OCPS is one of the most respected systems in the country. “Everyone on our team, from our CFO to our custodians, understands their primary mission is ensuring children are learning,” she said, “and to do that we have to run the business side efficiently.”
However, it is impossible to measure the success of a school system using the same metrics as a business. There is no assembly line, where profit can be measured against cost of goods. Instead, you are dealing with the X-factor of individual people, which can make the challenges quite staggering.
Everyone Is Responsible
An area that Jenkins and her team have faced head-on is ensuring students graduate. Not only is the gap in earning potential over $10,000 per year on average between high school and non-high school graduates, graduation also opens the door to more advanced certificates and degrees, which, in turn, is an economic multiplier. Of course, most people view this as a problem that begins in high school, but Jenkins contends it requires deliberate efforts beginning in the first grade.
“Everyone is responsible for graduation,” she said. “We’ve seen great progress, with a nearly 95 percent average graduation rate in our traditional high schools.”
Focusing not only on those academic and non-academic activities that develop grit and resilience in students, her team is also proactive in contacting dropouts to explore the compelling factors that drove their decision and help with solutions such as exploring opportunities through the various career certificate programs offered at Orange Technical College. “The data indicates adolescents don’t have the mental development to make decisions affecting the long-term trajectory of their lives, whether that’s to stay in school or enroll in an AP class,” she explained. “In order to better guide them, our Expectation Graduation program opens various career pathways for engagement and options to assist students in reaching their graduation goal.”
Another revolutionary program Jenkins has led is ensuring every student is at the forefront of digital learning. Thus far, more than 100,000 digital devices have been distributed to all high school and most middle school students, as well as a few elementary schools. The distribution of devices will soon expand to all middle and elementary schools. Middle and high school students can even take these devices home, and high school students will be allowed to use them over the summer. Sprint, the telecommunications giant, has supplied a generous finite number of mobile hotspots for students in need to expand the potential for all students to have Internet access.
The allure learning had for her as a child and the excitement teaching held is still what drives Jenkins today. “I’m extremely passionate about urban education,” she shared. “In our work, we must serve a tapestry of students from homeless to affluent, from severely disabled to brilliant. It’s such an honor to lead our thousands of students to success. Some people think I have a terribly difficult job, but the fact is, I can’t think of anything more rewarding or satisfying.”