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Reality Check: Systems Leadership In Action

An Interview with Barbara Jenkins, Superintendent, Orange County Public Schools & NTC Board Member

For NTC and Ed Trust, the (R)evolutionizEd2020 learning journey has created an opportunity to come together and delve deeper to better understand what it takes to advance equity in education. After talking with students, school leaders, teachers, policy advocates, and nonprofit partners, our final series topic: (R)evolutionizing Systems Leadership, is welcoming the voices of systems leaders. As we learn from those on the education frontlines, we are pleased to introduce Dr. Barbara Jenkins, Superintendent of Orange County Public Schools and NTC’s newest Board Member.

Dr. Jenkins has worked in public education for more than two decades. While leading the eighth largest school district in the United States, serving more than 200,000 students, Dr. Jenkins has been Florida Superintendent of the Year and Hispanic-Serving School District National Superintendent of the Year. We appreciate Dr. Jenkins taking the time to share her perspectives on the field this unique year.

Question: The 2020-2021 school year is unprecedented, and yet, you’ve led through difficult times during your tenure. Amid hurricanes, you’ve welcomed a large influx of student-citizens from Puerto Rico, you’ve distributed laptops to students, and you’ve already started taking curriculum digital. In leading through this pandemic, what has been different?

Answer: The largest difference is the struggle we have experienced over the politicizing of the pandemic. Yes, we’ve responded to emergency situations before – from hurricanes to a school shooting – but in those moments, everyone lined up on the same side. Throughout this emergency, there has been constant conflict and differing opinions over issues such as facemasks, social distancing, and distance learning. The absence of national and state protocols to help align us, has been a huge challenge. It is that difference that has demanded significant time and resources to manage the impact of the pandemic on our school system.  Those  resources typically would have been solely devoted to our core business of teaching and learning.

Question: What are the shifts required for systems leadership to live into the work in ways that can revolutionize the way we educate all students, especially those who have been perpetually marginalized?

Answer: We have two avenues to take that can make a difference. The first, is digital learning, which you can’t provide equitably if there is a persistent digital divide. While we had resources to ensure all students had access to devices, the real issue was internet connectivity. In this country, I would love to see internet access for all. Everyone should have access to those resources, not just those who are able to pay a provider. In the meantime, in partnership with our community, we are providing hotspots to families in need of assistance.

When we think about underserved communities, the second avenue to consider is the impact on our students who are learning in a face-to face setting. Right now, in-person class sizes are smaller, and the majority of those students who are coming to school are from underserved populations.  We have a unique opportunity in this limited time span to capitalize on smaller in-person class sizes, double down on support, and accelerate learning for those students. We must seize this opportunity to narrow achievement gaps.

Question: Speaking of teachers, what are you observing as their top needs?   

Answer: First, teachers need to feel safe in schools. We don’t have the resources nor the enrollment choices to accommodate every teacher who wishes to work from home. We must do everything in our power to make our schools as safe as possible for those who are in the buildings. Then teachers want support in the virtual learning space.  Professional development in this arena is critical for every teacher, but particularly for those who have to manage instruction for students in the building and virtual students at the same time. Navigating the hybrid environment is the greatest challenge for our teachers. So we are focused on supporting and coaching  teachers throughout this transitional period. That support includes prioritizing the social-emotional realm for both teachers and for students.

Question: What advice do you have for systems leaders, given all they are grappling with at this moment?

Answer: As a first priority, keep focusing on how to keep teachers healthy and happy. Many employees are growing more fearful as students return for in-person learning. In a recent Orange County poll, parents who want their students to return to school have increased from 30% to 42%. While a majority of students will remain learning from home, we’re preparing for 15,000 more students to return to school October 13th. Those students have to be served, so leaders have to assure their staff that every effort is being made to keep them safe.  I would also encourage my peers to embrace transparency, sharing extensive information as often as possible. Using community platforms, social media, YouTube  and dashboards increases the likelihood of reaching the masses. Our district has committed to updating our COVID-19 dashboard daily.

Question: What advice do you have for systems leaders to keep the focus on systemically underserved students?

Answer: Most important, do not discount the value of data. Publishing data is to make the case for equity strategies. Nobody has found the perfect solution for achievement gaps, so the data is ugly.  Publishing it makes the case for initiatives to better serve subgroups like our Black and Hispanic boys. The initiatives we put in place benefit all students, but there has to be a concentrated effort focused on the greatest needs. Individuals uncomfortable with equity initiatives for underserved populations are usually silenced by the data. 

Question: We are hearing from the field that professional learning needs are heightened as teaching has become more demanding and difficult. As a systems leader, how are you thinking about professional learning? Do you have any “reality checks” to offer as support providers dream big and see this moment as an opportunity to do things differently?

Answer: As a systems leader, I love innovation; I want to see pilots and initiatives that are going to be groundbreaking. I believe the vast majority of teachers are quite capable of diagnosing and pursuing their own professional development needs.  The menu to choose from is extremely vast, including content and strategies. That said, what I don’t want to see are “experiments” that take a gamble among our schools with the most underserved and vulnerable students. Sometimes professionals with the best intentions think, “let’s try this, if it doesn’t work, no harm, no foul,” but there is harm. Why? Because if the initiative doesn’t go well, those students do not have the additional resources available to make up for lost learning. We cannot afford to risk these students’ education, and we cannot “experiment” with their futures. For the schools with the most underserved and vulnerable student populations, I would like to see them receive the data-driven, outcomes based initiatives that are proven to increase student learning. Let’s start there and focus on implementing those best practices with fidelity, so that we can achieve early literacy, for example. I really believe such efforts can prevent significant teacher turnover and narrow achievement gaps among our students.

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Thank you to Dr. Jenkins for her time and thoughtfulness. We hope that you’ll join us for our (R)evolution campaign’s culminating event – a fireside chat with Dr. John B. King Jr., Tanji Reed Marshall, Desmond Blackburn, and Atyani Howard on Wednesday October 21st at 1:30pm PST / 4:30pm EST;  you can register here. Please join as we take our learning journey to new heights.

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