Dr. Carlton Jenkins Reflects on Leading MMSD During the Pandemic: Educating during Two Pandemics

By Jonathan Gramling

When Dr. Carlton Jenkins assumed the helm of the Madison Metropolitan School District as its superintendent in August 2020, he was already a seasoned veteran in fighting two pandemics — dealing with two fronts in the battle to achieve educational equity for all students — with the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial achievement gap severely impacting Madison’s schools. Madison’s schools had gone virtual and the Black Lives Matter protests were in Madison’s streets on a nightly basis with many MMSD students participating.

However, Jenkins was coming from a school district in Minnesota that was front and center within these pandemics.

“We were the first school district in Minnesota to actually close due to COVID-19 cases,” Jenkins said. “I had been leading a local, regional, state and national effort in terms of just preparing for COVID-19. Moving over, I had some members from Wisconsin also as a part of the teams and the gatherings that I was pulling together. Coming back to Madison, for myself, I was coming back, but from a totally different circumstance that you see in a dual pandemic and then actually it was 16.2 miles from my home where Mr. Floyd was actually murdered. And so I was really immersed in that whole social justice movement. In coming back here, there were many things that had already taken place.”

Jenkins also knew that he was coming to a place where a great team had already taken many measures in the face of the pandemic.

“Just having the right people in the right places around you just made it a much more welcoming environment for me to be working in just like everyone else around the world,” Jenkins said. “It made a difference being in it with everybody. This was a time when you


CoverCarlton Jenkins

Dr. Carlton Jenkins became MMSD Superintendent during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests.

look from school board to staff to community, everyone was in there. We had to just jump in. That was it.”

In terms of the racial disparities pandemic, while feeling a sense of urgency, Jenkins also knew that there was no magic wand to wave where the disparities would disappear.

“I’m often reminding individuals that these disparities have been there since the beginning and Brown vs. Board of Education,” Jenkins said. “In fact, there has been more documented achievement in mathematics and science of African Americans prior to integration. At the beginning of integration, that’s when we begin to see disparity that never seems to close. We started making gains in the 1970s. And it began to just explode again ever since 1983. And we have not become remotely close since. I recently asked some researchers if there has been a district that actually closed the gaps and sustained the closure. They came back and reported, ‘You know how many districts that have actually done that in the nation? Zero.’ Here in Madison, we’re still facing the pandemic. And we’re looking at it as an opportunity to really begin to rethink how we are educating all of our children and live up to what was promised to happen when the whole idea of Brown was to not only give equal access, but we want equal outcomes. We are at a place now where we have grown and we say it’s not good enough to be in the same space. We want the same outcomes.”

While Jenkins grieves for the lives and human potential lost during the pandemic, Jenkins also senses that going through this tragic time together has brought a new sensitivity to each other’s humanity. And that is key in creating a healthy educational environment for all students.

“When you think about the social justice issues, that’s America in its infancy,” Jenkins emphasized. “And so now how do we reconcile undoing the dehumanization, to a particular group of individuals, particularly with slavery and how do we move forward now in trying to create this human decency for everyone. That’s where we are headed. So this dual pandemic, though it may have been tragic with the number of lives that we have lost and the cumulative pain of this thing has just been something that exposes all to illness, I believe it is causing a lot of people to want to be better human beings. We have a world pandemic. This health pandemic led into a social justice movement that I think rivaled the 1960s and before at a whole another level. As they say, the truth shall set you free.”

And so at the very foundation for reversing the decades long trend of widening disparities is a simple human emotion, loving all children as your own.

“As Baldwin said, ‘One of the realities when everyone is asking what we can do,’ in 1963 when he spoke to the teachers,” Jenkins said. “He said, ‘Just love our children. Just love them.’ In order to love them, you have to see. And seeing is believing.”

Jenkins first came to the Madison Metropolitan School District in 1993 fresh out of completing his graduate work at UW-Madison. He experienced the institutional racism firsthand when he became an assistant principal at Madison Memorial High School.

“I was hired as assistant principal,” Jenkins recalled. “But I was called an intern for a semester. That way, they could get used to me. And then second semester, I became an assistant principal. I had graduated from Madison as my peers had. But that was my reality coming into Madison.”

But he also saw a lot of learning going on at a time where more resources were available for public education than they are today.

“I saw exponential learning at a level with just high-quality teaching, which I still see today,” Jenkins said. “You can throughout and we have some teachers in some classrooms who can compete anywhere in the world. But I’ve also seen public education come under attack. And the resources that we once thrived on in Madison — and we have resources now — were at a different level. Taxpayers, citizens of Wisconsin have always believed in public education. But it just seems that in terms of how the dollars are being stretched and the support from the state and federal level is different.”

But what has been changing, according to Jenkins, is human awareness of each other.

“There is a higher level of consciousness about human decency right now,” Jenkins noted. “You hear more and more people advocating. Various racial groups and economic groups are saying, ‘Hey we want this for everyone.’ But then you see some small groups who are digging their heels in and want to continue to persist with what was traditional and safe for them and be good for them, and not be as concerned for the other group. It’s clear in the country as it is in the Madison area. You see those political lines in which people have fallen. But in terms of education, I think the district has really leaned into this whole trying to be an anti-racist district and our progressive stance around social justice. I think this is exciting. This is really a time to be a part of the Madison Metropolitan School District. It’s a great time to live in the city of Madison because I believe in everything that I have that if there is going to be a change that happens, why not Madison first? Why can’t Madison become the prototype? I believe that we are on that path. It is a journey. It’s not going to happen overnight. It didn’t get here overnight. It really didn’t. But we’re getting the right amount of synergy. It’s just going to take some time.”

The Madison Metropolitan School District is moving to become an anti-racist system. While diversity and inclusion look at increasing the number of students — and teachers — from different marginalized groups, anti-racism is more of a proactive approach to removing barriers, attitudes and other conditions that limit students from reaching their academic potential no matter “what” they are. What it does depend upon is the level of genuine love that each student receives.

Next issue: Anti-racism and the impact of the pandemic on racial disparities