Honoring Women Who are Leading the Way in Central Florida
Barbara Jenkins | Spirit of Collaboration Award Winner
Barbara Jenkins earned her bachelor, masters and doctor of Education from the University of Central Florida. After working 13 years for Orange County Public Schools (OCPS), she was recruited to Charlotte, NC, where she served as assistant superintendent for eight years, and never really intended to return to Florida. “But the carrot that was repeatedly dangled in front of me was ‘don’t you want to see good things happen for more children?’ I was drawn to that challenge with each move and returned to Florida.”
She’s been back at Orange County Public Schools for 10 years now. And in a sense, she is living her dream: “I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was a child. I was enticed to pursue administration in order to ‘make good things happen for more children.’ I am certainly drawn to a challenge, but really believe in our children and the power of public education. It remains critical to our future as a democratic society.”
She enjoys having the supportive environment of OCPS, a community of committed educators determined to help children succeed. She has worked diligently toward having her team focus their efforts on student success, and “that’s what excites me the most” she says. “We have brilliant young people who energize and inspire me daily.”
When Jenkins thinks about what has brought about her success in public education, she muses: “I suppose my communication skills are an asset, but I am fortunate to have a high-functioning school board, focused on governance and student success. My leadership team is second to none, and our principals and teachers are excellent.”
On the topic of women in education, Jenkins is crystal clear about the difference the fairer sex can have. “I think women often can bring a heightened level of intensity to this work. I am well trained in the profession of education, but I am extremely passionate about urban education. In our work, we must serve a beautiful tapestry of students, from homeless to affluent, from severely disabled to brilliant. It is an honor to help lead 203,000 students to success. There is a good possibility that my maternal instincts play a role in my determination and sense of urgency to help every student, but many of my male counterparts possess the same sense of urgency.”
Jenkins mentors several staff members as well as men and women in other districts informally. She has agreed to a formal mentoring program through AASA, the national school superintendents’ association, and is a finalist (one of four nationwide) for Superintendent of the Year at the AASA 2017 National Conference on Education in New Orleans, March 2-4.
When talking about education in Orange County, she is very focused, “We are determined to build grit in our students. I want them to possess resilience and determination; to understand that smart is not just something you are, but something you can work hard to become. I want them to believe that smart is cool. So we stress academic activities like chess club, debate teams, robotics teams and more as much as we do athletic competitions.
In our work, we must serve a beautiful tapestry of students, from homeless to affluent, from severely disabled to brilliant.
Asked about her role models and mentors, Jenkins quickly points to her mother, Mattie Merkison, and her uncle, Dr. James Talbert. Appropriately, she also named Ron Blocker, the OCPS superintendent who preceded her (“he called me ‘Grasshopper,’
I called him ‘Sensei’”), her first principal, Jim Kaiser; the former assistant superintendent for elementary education Roy Eldridge, and her religious leaders.
Jenkins was the youngest (and first pregnant) principal in this district. She was also pregnant at the time she was set to her next promotion, a position that required her to supervise other principals. Around the same time, she had entered her doctoral cohort at UCF and thinks back to another of her mentors, UCF’s Bob Rothberg, from her doctoral studies. “Dr. Rothberg called me about the doctoral cohort and said, ‘you hurry up and have that baby so you can get out here and earn your doctorate!’”
Jenkins has had a productive and rewarding career and is reminded again and again that her decision to pursue academic life was the right one.
“People come to me and say I must have a terribly difficult job. But I don’t. It is the most rewarding and satisfying thing I can imagine. Every day I am impressed by our students, and I’m recharged by the potential I see for our county, our state, our country, and the world.”